A Skeptical View of Engagement

By Ed Frauenheim

Dec. 2, 2009

Increasing employee engagement is a top priority for many HR leaders these days. But some observers warn that fixating on ever-higher engagement survey scores is wrongheaded and may backfire.

Organizations that measure engagement—including Gallup, Towers Perrin and the Corporate Executive Board—have different surveys and formulas for calculating employee commitment. And their findings about engagement overall vary.

Adam Zuckerman, a consultant at Towers Perrin, says it makes little sense to try to pin down a “normal” level of engagement, given variations by geography, industry and job function. The key, he argues, is for firms to raise scores.

“More of it is always good,” he says.

Critics, though, question sweeping claims about engagement. John Haggerty, managing director for executive education at the Center for Advanced Human Resources Studies at Cornell University, argues that engagement surveys that result in a numeric score often amount to hype.

“Too many companies conduct the survey, and then struggle to improve the metric, without any idea of whether their more ‘engaged employees’ are behaving in ways that foster or promote better customer service or higher productivity,” he says.

Companies focus too exclusively on employee engagement at the expense of other key people matters, says Laurie Bassi, head of consulting firm McBassi and Co. The quality of work processes—how well tasks are divided and carried out—is often overlooked in engagement assessments, Bassi says. She says the same is true for hiring practices, which play a big role in the culture of an organization and its business outcomes. “It is of course necessary to have engaged employees,” she says. “It is, however, not sufficient.”

Bassi adds that it is dangerous to apply a one-size-fits-all model of engagement and its causes to organizations. For example, it may turn out that engaging the employees of two similar retail banks requires very different strategies, she says. One bank may need to focus on the quality of feedback from supervisors, while the other—which is more mature in its performance management practices—should concentrate on professional development opportunities to fire up workers.

Theresa Welbourne, a business consultant and researcher at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California, says improving the engagement scores of a certain class of employees is actually counterproductive. There are “entitled” workers who are satisfied on the job and feel very valued but perform poorly, she says. Increasing their engagement scores through traditional means such as extra rewards will work against them changing their work habits, she argues. “All you’re doing is reinforcing the status quo,” she says.

Welbourne’s consulting firm, eePulse, offers a version of an engagement survey that also measures employees’ level of “urgency,” which she says is a crucial factor in performance.

Dave Logan, co-author of Tribal Leadership, a book about successful work cultures, says companies set their sights too low by obsessing over engagement. At the most advanced organizations, employees feel “alive,” Logan says.

“Engagement is a bit of a remedial variable,” he says. “There are some cultures that go way beyond engagement.”

Ed Frauenheim is a former Associate Editorial Director at Human Capital Media and currently works as Senior Director of Content at Great Place to Work. He is a co-author of A Great Place to Work For All.

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