The promise of engagement: Examining myths, truths (Guest commentary)

Engagement predicts just one per cent of company's profits
By Henryk Krajewski
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/02/2008

True or false: Engagement is important to the overall performance of an organization? Easy. It’s true, right? I mean, this is important stuff, isn’t it?

Well, the answer really depends on what you mean by “engagement.” If you mean employees who actually feel connected to the company, fit within a strong, distinct culture and identify with the brand image then, yes — engagement is important. If, however, you mean will higher engagement scores actually relate to better performance, you may be surprised by the answer.

Hard facts about engagement surveys

Many of the most popular engagement surveys don’t actually measure engagement at all. Consider for example, the following items, common in many surveys:

• I have a best friend at work.

• I have the tools and materials necessary to do my job.

• I know what is expected of me at work.

Those things don’t really tap into engagement at all. Engagement relates to that sense of connectedness to values, and commitment to a company’s goals and mission, that are so important to delivering on a company’s promise.

The three items above look more like the job satisfaction items that gained notoriety in the 1970s and 1980s — not exactly lightning fast progress. Certainly, these items may be important to creating a sense of engagement on some level, but they don’t directly measure engagement. Therefore, increasing scores on these types of items may look good tied to a corporate goal, but that’s unlikely to lead to meaningful organizational performance.

The evidence

Many people point to seminal research in the Journal of Applied Psychology by James Harter, Frank Schmidt and Theodore Hayes (2002) as evidence that engagement surveys do indeed impact profit and productivity. However, what is commonly overlooked when citing this research is that it shows engagement predicts just one per cent of a company’s total profit.

That’s not exactly the kind of compelling evidence that is going to convince chief executive officers to start lining up at the engagement survey store.

So, what’s going on here? Many popular measures of engagement tend to focus on evaluations of workplace elements (job satisfaction, leadership quality and potential predictors or outcomes of engagement) versus assessing the real degree of commitment and belief an employee has regarding the organization and its values. In other words, these traditional measures tend to capture the head, but not the heart.

Assessing how one feels when at work (job affect) is superior to assessing more cognitive or logical evaluations (job satisfaction) in the prediction of job performance. Given this data, and the less than overwhelming proof the promise of engagement has been fulfilled, it may be time to examine other, more productive ways of measuring and promoting engagement in organizations.

New solutions for old problems

One new solution concerns the idea of “commitment” and the extent to which it can be accurately measured.

It’s astoundingly simple in concept — if you are interested in tapping into whether individuals are actually aligned with the organization’s mission, culture and values, you should simply ask those questions. Researchers John Meyer, Natalie Allen and Lynne Satov have examined this very question and produced a variety of measures of this important factor. The research indicates emotion-based (affective) commitment to an organization’s values and goals is strongly connected to higher retention, productivity and performance. Beyond a mere precursor to engagement, this emotion- and values-based concept of commitment is much closer to what we have classically thought of as a sense of engagement.

It is certainly plausible people can be connected to organizations for a variety of reasons, beyond just feeling aligned with company values and brand images. For example, people can remain with organizations because they have very limited choices available to them. Or they may stay because they feel a form of obligation to support the needs of their friends and colleagues. And, as has been shown by Meyer and colleagues, people can hold varying levels of these aspects of commitment at any one time. In the end, it’s an individual’s profile on these aspects of commitment that predicts whether she will be a top, average or below average performer.

We may also want to examine whether measuring engagement is itself a true engagement strategy. Consider this fact: Measuring engagement does not produce engagement. We have seen how measuring engagement can actually decrease engagement scores through the degree of cynicism and survey fatigue that exists in organizations today.

Four phases of engagement

What is most important to realize is the art of engaging a workforce is accomplished in four broad phases:

• Proactive, meaningful dialogue with your most important employees

• Communicating how you have listened to and understood employee needs

• Embedding key values in the fabric of the organizational culture and HR subsystems

• Measuring the extent to which employees remain committed to the value and key value propositions they helped create.

Perhaps understanding some of these simple facts will lead us to be more wary consumers of engagement tools and help us move toward solutions and processes that result in strong cultures your competition can’t copy.

Henryk Krajewski is vice-president and national practice leader of consulting with Right Management in Toronto. He can be reached at henryk.krajewski@right.com or (888) 926-1324 ext. 249.

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