Overused and Misunderstood? The Curious Case of Employee Engagement

POSITION PAPER BY THE TALENT ENTERPRISE

Over the recent decade, and rightfully so, employee engagement has emerged as one of the most critical priorities for organisations and human capital professionals, and one of the key people metrics. Unfortunately, like many other aspects of HR, it is now part of the rhetoric or jargon over-used by us, without fully appreciating how to define, measure or improve the levels of employee engagement. Admittedly, much of this can be attributed to the brilliant marketing efforts by most consulting firms selling ‘engagement solutions’ and ‘awards’ and most companies keen to jump on the engagement bandwagon.

Engagement has become one of those buzzwords, similar to ‘big data’ or ‘war-for-talent’, where every organisation is keen to ‘do it’, without fully comprehending the ‘what’ or the ‘how’ of employee engagement and motivation.

Professor Arnold Bakker, the leading academic researcher on engagement, says it all.
“Compared to the immense popularity, application and sales of employee engagement in business, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars every year, there is a surprising scarcity of academic research on this critical topic.” Bakker also adds that virtually all major human resources consulting firms are in the ‘business’ of improving levels of work engagement, without any credible academic substantiation. Although most claim that their models are different, a closer review reveals that they mostly measure organisational commitment, discretionary effort or satisfaction with organisational resources, commonly known as engagement ‘drivers’. With some exceptions, Bakker says that “the way these leading consultancy firms conceptualise engagement comes close to putting old wine in a new bottle.”

SOME TRUTHS & MYTHS ABOUT EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT

Where is the Data? Without doubt, employee engagement is a very ‘popular topic’. According to Professor Bakker, an internet search yielded over 650,000 hits on this topic. Scholarly publications (e.g., whitepapers, fact sheets, and consultancy reports) reduced the search to approximately 2,000. Finally, and alarmingly, the most restrictive search in any peer-reviewed international journal yielded only about 30 hits. Hence, despite the incredible emphasis placed on employee engagement by organisations, there seems to be a dearth of good quality academic research
and rigour on this topic, and hence, the question remains, whether we fully understand how to define, measure and positively impact levels of employee engagement.

Does Engagement Really Lead to Better Business Performance? The jury is still out on whether engaged employees lead to better financial performance or if, in reality, high performing organisations create an environment where employees are more engaged. Most common articles and whitepapers published on engagement continue to establish the link between key organisational outcomes such as company performance, absenteeism, customer satisfaction, fewer accidents and productivity. However, on closer review, most of these studies are correlational, and not causal or predictive, and here lies the big difference. In simple terms, current claims to linking engagement with other critical factors such as financial performance is similar to saying that ‘when the birds chirp, the sun rises’ (a correlation), however, this doesn’t imply that the ‘rising of the sun is caused by chirping of the birds. Hence, correlation does not imply causality.

yearlyOur Yearly Engagement Survey: In a recent study by The Talent Enterprise and Informa Middle East (The MENA Labour Market Confidence Index, 2014) of over 1250 business and HR leaders in our region, 77% of respondents reported that they conduct a formal engagement survey every 1 or 2 years. These efforts to measure employee engagement are extremely commendable, as they take a significant amount of time, effort and energy.
In all cases, the resultant engagement score is then used as the benchmark or standard for all reporting that follows. It’s a ‘score’ that is used by employers for many purposes – to attract and recruit new hires, to apply for ‘quality’ and ‘best employer’ awards or to submit as part of the ‘annual organisational scorecard’ or company report. If the scores are good, it is seen as a badge that management seeks to give itself, a pat on the back for a job well done. The scores rise and everyone celebrates. When the scores are low or when they fall, HR is often to blame!
In some instances, the employer rejects the results from the engagement survey itself or hires a new consultancy to conduct a new survey, allegedly with a new engagement ‘methodology’.

However, there are two absolutely critical things to consider here:

First, how engagement is defined and measured? Despite what it may be called or how it may be packaged, is the survey assessing organisational satisfaction, commitment and feedback on HR ‘drivers’ or it is a genuine measure of employee engagement?  Moreover, how are the results been scored or calculated?

And second, we need to address the question of whether a once-a-year, or once-in-two-years measure of employee engagement is actually accurate. The latest research shows otherwise. Engagement is a ‘state’ based measure, i.e. engagement levels can fluctuate on a weekly or even a daily basis. Hence, using your annual engagement score as the real indicator of employee engagement would be inaccurate at best and misleading at worst. We are often asked by our clients on what is the best time to conduct an engagement survey – should it be just before the performance cycle or just after the announcement of increments and bonuses!

The truth is that there is no right time, but a static, once-a-year tabmeasure of engagement will never be an indicator of the pulse of the organisation. Hence, it is much more instructive to conduct more regular, random, short surveys through the year, and use the aggregated scores as your more realistic engagement measure. This is not as hard, complex or time-consuming as it may seem, and just like most companies have devised regular means of measuring customer satisfaction (through kiosks, tablets, apps, mystery shopping, random checks etc.) new and innovative ways of assessing employee engagement on an on-going basis can be easily deployed. Technology and social media is changing how we work, and companies no longer need to wait for 12 months to know how engaged their employees are, or wait 1 or 2 months for a big consulting firm to provide their engagement reports!

THE ‘WHAT-HAVE-YOU-DONE-FOR-ME-LATELY’ PARADOX

Without doubt, the biggest and most fundamental issue with our current approaches to engagement is that they are rather one-sided. The onus for engagement lies completely with the organisation. It is based on the flawed assumption that the responsibility of motivating employees rests with the employer, with the management and HR. By asking questions on what our staff feel about their pay, the work resources, their managers and leaders, their learning and career growth opportunities, and other HR ‘drivers’ it creates a sense of expectations and actions to improve engagement outcomes falls almost exclusively on the shoulders of the employer. Employees look to the management to keep them motivated and engaged. If managers pull back on the throttle even slightly, engagement falls. It creates a what-have-you-done-for-me lately attitude.

Engagement based on employer hand-outs and high employee expectations is extremely counter-productive to its original intent. When the source of employee engagement is external, it is a fragile relationship.

Though organisational factors are extremely critical and do contribute to an employee’s level of engagement, they only provide half the picture at best. Sustainable and reliable employee engagement requires that both the employee and the company contribute to its success. What the organisation does, or doesn’t do, is only part of the equation. What completes the equation is the fact that each individual chooses whether he or she wants to be engaged and maintain consistent levels of motivation, sometimes despite what the organisation provides. Human motivations and beliefs are complex and driven by personal needs and assumptions about our work. Employees need to be good at what they do and genuinely be ambitious, accountable, aware, and agile, resilient and self-confident.

Hence, employee engagement is a two-way street – and both the employer and the employee need to take personal responsibility and accountability for their motivation and their actions.

FINDING A SOLUTION?

The truth of the matter is that employee engagement is a non-negotiable and essential asset for any organisation expecting to win the war for talent. Despite the time, money, resources, and individual commitment that companies must invest in keeping employee engagement high, it cannot be dismissed or even treated lightly. Employee engagement is a force to be reckoned with. Engagement comes from the heart. It is the soul of an organisation. Like motivation, employee engagement is real and durable when it is driven internally.

Sustainable employee engagement occurs when the employer

okcreates the culture and employees contribute to it because they are self-engaged. Let us repeat that – employees must have the ability to self-engage, to be self-motivated. They need to possess the ‘strengths’ and ‘skills’ to be driven to work and put in the discretionary effort. Many workers lack the skill and motivation to accept responsibility and accountability. They want to be led but don’t want to follow. They want to be taught but don’t want to learn. And when faced with setbacks, they lack the motivation and skill to overcome adversity.

The Talent Enterprise’s Philosophy on Employee Engagement
Engagement is all about an equilibrium between the strengths, personal impact and contribution of employees as well as the support and resources provided by the employer. Both aspects are equally important. Hence, when we assess employee engagement, it would be highly instructive to measure both personal (i.e. employee) and organisational (i.e. employer) engagement.

So, the next you’re embarking on your company’s engagement survey, here are some absolutely crucial aspects for you to consider:

a) Be Mindful of the Questions you Ask and Don’t Always Depend on ‘Best-Practice’ Models: Ensure that the questions are appropriate, relevant and customised to your organisational culture and history. And most importantly, makes sure that they are all not one-sided in creating a sense of expectations and complacency from your employees. Make sure you are getting information on what employees can do for the organisation, what is their contribution to the psychological contract?

b) Assess Engagement More Frequently: Briefer, repeat measures of engagement work best. They can be quick to administer, fun and interactive, with instant reporting and feedback

c) Remember, the Real Work Starts after the Survey is Over: Most organisations spend the maximum amount of time, effort and money on the engagement survey itself. And many of our clients struggle with identifying and sustaining meaningful actions on an on-going basis. They hit an engagement ‘bottle-neck’ with some being unable to drastically change their scores over time. Admittedly, consultants love to work on engagement surveys (easier to manage, earning potential can be high, and the project is considered complete when a report is submitted, or an action planning workshop has been facilitated), however, without exception, all consultants would shy away from the implementation of engagement actions. These are left to the HR function to pick up and ‘do something about’. Remember, the survey is only the beginning of the engagement journey and the messaging and communication before, during and after the survey is absolutely crucial. Commitment to improving engagement is both top-down (from HR & management) as well as bottom-up (from the employees themselves). Sustaining and improving true engagement is hard-work and requires emotional labour and commitment from all stakeholders, management, HR and most importantly, the employees themselves

d) Make it Business-Relevant and use Predictive Data: A crucial success factor for engagement to not be perceived as an HR initiative is to use talent analytics and link engagement results to real-life business outcomes such as individual and organisational performance, productivity, absenteeism, sickness absence, customer satisfaction etc. We work with a number of clients in the region to conduct predictive analysis linked to fundamental business metrics, and very quickly, we see the focus shifting from this being an HR initiated-project to one led directly by the CEO & his / her team

e) Study Positive Outliers: One of the most powerful and exciting aspects of engagement is to understand what is different about those within your organisations who are highly engaged? What are their personal strengths, drivers and motivations? What are the organisational factors that are making the most difference? By understanding more about your positive deviants, you can define more relevant and meaning actions for the rest of the workforce as well.

f) Link Engagement to your Talent Attraction, Development and Retention Priorities: Employee engagement is no a stand-alone exercise. It can lie at the heart of your HR strategy. By understanding what is different about your engaged employees, you can then hire others with a similar mindset. What are you doing to identify, hire, and retain employees who have the ability to engage with your culture as well as be engaged by it?

g) Aspects that Engage Talent in the Region: Research conducted by The Talent Enterprise also identifies the key organisational and personal factors that impact employee engagement in the region.

tableh) Get a Second Opinion: Finally, the next time you’re seeking to understand, assess or identify ways to improve engagement, and are looking for some honest and genuine feedback, do feel free to get in touch with the team at The Talent Enterprise.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHIES

0mp[0onmRadhika Punshi is the Co-Founder and Director of Innovation at The Talent Enterprise. As a psychologist, Radhika is an expert in HR & organisational behaviour, with a prime focus on nationalisation, youth & female inclusion. She is a well-regarded expert in the area of employee engagement and well-being. She is also the co-author of the best-selling book titled ‘Unlocking the Paradox of Plenty’. Radhika is the first person from the MENASA region to be awarded a degree in Positive Psychology. She is a frequent commentator in the media and speaks regularly at conferences across the world.

davidDavid Jones is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Talent Enterprise. With a background in labour market economics, David has lived and worked in the UAE for over 18 years. He is a senior advisor to policy-makers, business and HR leaders on aspects of human capital strategy and transformation at the national and organisational level. Previously, David was the Chief Consulting Officer for Aon Hewitt, MENA and also held senior leadership roles at Emirates and Dubai Civil Aviation.   David is also the co-author of the best-selling book ‘Unlocking the Paradox of Plenty’.

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