Critically Examining Engagement

A Cornell University HR professor offers some ways human resource leaders can misuse or be misled by employee-engagement metrics. Creating such measures will be useful only if HR can diagnose where a lack of engagement is holding back business performance and then carry out HR interventions that solve that problem.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008
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I truly believe that employee engagement (defined as motivation to do the right things to help drive performance at an organization) is critical for firms to manage; however, I am concerned that we have not treated employee engagement as a way to make sure that the HR department is helping to create value for the organization. 

What follows are six points as to why employee engagement may be hogwash.

1) What comes first -- engagement or great business performance?

Business performance can be driven by factors, such as marketplace conditions, or by a winning strategy versus competitors. And there is much qualitative and empirical evidence that people are more engaged at work when the company is performing successfully.

That's not very different from the phenomena of people flocking to become fans of sports teams that have won big events. 

Just look what happens to the sales of shirts and paraphernalia for teams that have won the Super Bowl or how dramatically the number of applications rises at schools following a great football or basketball season.

The same is true at companies. 

For example, if you look at companies that are currently struggling versus competition or struggling to turn around market perceptions, it is no surprise that their engagement scores also begin to lag.

I firmly believe that an "engagement campaign" would make little or no difference to engagement scores or firm performance in such instances. Instead, engagement scores will start to increase when the organization sees an increase in performance.

2) Are happy, engaged workers necessarily productive workers?

Decades of research have shown that happy workers are not always productive workers.  

Engagement without an understanding of strategy, without being aligned to organization goals, without having the right skills and capabilities and without behaving in a strategic way is a recipe for poor organizational performance

The hypothesis here is perhaps that things such as satisfaction surveys, engagement programs and employer-of-choice programs create motivated observers rather than a critical mass of successful, performing employees. 

There is also a threat of over-satisfaction, where employees become so satisfied that they stick around too long and reduce the opportunities for a company to bring in new talent with new ideas that help to create diversity and variety in the way the company thinks and interacts. 

Do people become too internally focused -- so comfortable and content that they can't react to change as it happens around them? Look at what nearly happened to IBM in the 1980s.

3) Are all employees created equal?

Most engagement efforts seem to totally ignore the demographics of employee engagement. There has been a change in employee perceptions, especially between generations -- broken deals, different ideas about what constitutes a career, higher education leading to greater expectations, greater focus on work/life balance, more workforce diversity, etc.

How can one-size-fits-all engagement measures differentiate between different segments of the workforce or people in different functions?

Each group has different needs, and, therefore, engagement must have very different meanings. For example, what baby boomers value at work is very different than Generation X or Y.

Work is clearly not the same thing to all people and we all engage emotionally in different ways.  

Similarly, is there a difference between cultures? Do employees in India view engagement in the same way as employees in the United States or Germany?

And what about functional differences? Is engagement the same for a Ph.D. scientist working on the latest nanotechnology experiments and a field sales representative or an employee in the call center?

Let's look at a different form of demographic. Normal engagement measures also don't differentiate between ABC performers/ABC roles.

All talent is not created equal and the wrong people may be engaged.

I really want to know how satisfied and motivated my A performers and people in mission-critical roles are -- and want to manage their engagement and contribution for all it's worth. For the rest, I could care less. 

The moral of the story here is that companies cannot hope to be all things to all people on the engagement front -- and they need to understand how to make their engagement strategies be more targeted and, therefore, effective.

4)  What is employee engagement anyway? 

There are many different definitions, even more variety in measures, and quite a bit of confusion in separating what employee engagement is versus how it is created or what it affects. 

I have reviewed more than 20 reports, white papers and articles from consulting firms, academics, and popular press publications, and have found a wide range of factors that have been included in definitions of employee engagement including:

* Pride in employer;

* Satisfaction with employer;

* Job satisfaction;

* Opportunity to perform well at challenging work;

* Recognition and positive feedback for one's contributions;

* Personal support from one's supervisor;

* Effort above and beyond the minimum;

* Understanding the link between one's job and the organization's mission;

* Prospects for future growth with one's employer;

* Intention to stay with the employer;

* Commitment to the company;

* Commitment to one's job;

* Commitment to one's supervisor or associates;

* Motivation to contribute to the organization's success; and

* Extent to which employee puts in discretionary effort.

This leads me to ask the question of what is employee engagement?  Is employee engagement the actions that lead to attitudes, the attitudes themselves, the potential outcomes of attitudes, observable behaviors?

Why is this lack of precision in the definition an issue?                         


For one, it seems to me that it is difficult, if not impossible, for companies to make a concerted effort to change leadership, HR practices/policies or organizational structures unless they understand exactly what they are trying to impact. 

Providing more clearly articulated definitions and causal flow regarding employee engagement is necessary if companies are truly going to change their workforce. 

Second, it seems to me that it is almost impossible for companies and practitioners to share best-practice knowledge if there is not a common understanding of what is meant by employee engagement. 

The transferability of best practices is always somewhat suspect given the differing nature of industry, company culture and environmental conditions across companies, but the translatability of best practices is even more circumspect when companies are talking how to change employee engagement but have two very different implicit assumptions of what they mean by employee engagement. 

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Third, accumulation and comparability of findings is virtually impossible.  What is really helpful is to accumulate findings from across a wide array of contexts and deeply examine the results to look for consistency or differences across industries, types of jobs, settings etc., in order to provide more prescriptive advice on when particular interventions or employee outcomes are particularly important or relevant. 

However, this is impossible when the definitions and measurement of these concepts are widely different across companies. In effect, it is impossible to tell if the variations are the result of actual differences across conditions or if the differences are driven by the lack of consistency in the definitions.

5)  Engagement is related to ... well, engagement. 

While I hate to be the bearer of bad news, some of the evidence on employee engagement provided by consulting companies is often misleading. 

Unfortunately, much of the evidence provided by firms shows that employee-engagement attitudes are correlated to employee-attitude measures that are very similar to the measures of engagement. 

I am not saying companies shouldn't measure and try to understand the impact of employee engagement, but I would like to see the connection to hard measures. 

For example, what is the correlation between employee engagement and real innovation, measured as the number of new products developed, the percentage of revenues driven from new products or services, the dollar figure of cost savings from process innovations, etc.

Don't be satisfied with seeing correlations between perceptual survey measures. Ask for hard evidence.  Alternatively, be sure that the survey items used to measure employee engagement do not have such substantial item overlap with the outcomes that they are supposed to predict.

6)  Managing to a survey rather than company impact. 

All of the preceding points are important in helping to think more strategically about what we think we should be measuring in our organizations when it comes to employee engagement -- what does engagement mean to us, which employees do we most want engaged, what are the different types or levels of engagement across employee groups and what should engagement drive in our organizations?

This leads me to the final point: Make sure you are managing engagement for a purpose. I have increasingly started to see companies looking to manage their engagement-survey scores as an important goal and set of metrics in its own right. 

Similarly, I have increasingly been hearing HR people talking about comparing (i.e., benchmarking) the engagement score of their company to the engagement scores of other organizations, then trying to identify how to get their engagement scores higher, as if having the highest engagement score is the end goal. 

Of even greater concern, I have started to hear HR people talking about how CEOs are looking for an engagement number that they can talk about to their boards and investors. 

This kind of pressure only increases the likelihood that we are going to start to manage a score on the survey rather than manage real engagement that leads to real productivity and performance.

In my mind, engagement surveys and the concept of employee engagement are only tools for companies to think about and potentially identify where there may be a lack of motivation, cultural or climate issues, or other employee outcome problems that are holding back the organization from achieving its intended performance goals. 

In other words, the goal here is not to make changes in HR practices, organizational structure, or leadership behaviors so that the employees rate questions higher than the previous year. 

The goal is to diagnose where lack of employee engagement in the context of your company is holding back performance and to carry out HR interventions that solve that engagement issue. 

I think this also flows into my fear of companies relying to consulting companies to provide them surveys and then managing employees' responses to questions on a survey (i.e., the questions become the metrics to show HR impact) rather than really trying to understand the underlying relationships. 

Chris Collins is an associate professor of HR studies and the director of executive education at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

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