It’s about raising employee engagement levels, not just raising the score

Mix of elements on employee survey must be just right for true answers

Many organizations use formal employee surveys to measure and assess engagement and figure out what’s needed to improve it. And 81 per cent of the world’s largest public organizations have developed and communicated a specific definition of engagement at their organizations, with the majority using formal surveys to measure it, according to Hay Group.

While this may seem like a progressive step in human resource management, it’s actually where the challenge begins. Surveys are often constructed around very different definitions of engagement — and all surveys are not created equal.

As we know, people tend to focus their behaviours on what is measured, so we need to ensure the right concepts are measured.

While the construct of employee engagement is relatively new, employee surveys can be traced back to the 1920s. Over the decades, the purpose and process of surveying employees has generally shifted from measuring morale, satisfaction and union avoidance to being more strategic human resource tools.

With this evolution, employers need to be clear about how they shape their definition of engagement and develop a survey to measure that concept. They need to be sure the survey will assess overall engagement and help the organization understand what to do to improve it.

The challenge comes when you peel back the layers to see what people mean by engagement and discover it is still akin to “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” People are measuring quite different concepts and all are calling it engagement.

For example, the 2009 British report Engaging for Success: Enhancing Performance Through Employee Engagement by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke identified more than 50 definitions of engagement.

With this long history of surveying and many different definitions of engagement, it’s not surprising employers can become frustrated when there appear to be high levels of engagement among employees but also lower productivity, union and management concerns, and high turnover.

To ensure an organization achieves the results it is anticipating, it needs to develop an engagement survey that is more likely to have a positive impact on its success. Here’s how to do that:

Start with a clear definition of engagement: At a recent workshop, a group of leaders each came up with a time they had seen “engaged” employees. It was surprising how consistent their examples were — an engaged employee showed excitement and energy, went the extra length to solve customer or client issues and wanted to grow, improve and have an impact on their organization.

While there is no perfect definition, employee engagement is commonly viewed as encompassing, in some combination, three core elements:

• affective commitment (such as pride in the organization or a willingness to recommend the organization as an employer)

• continuance commitment (such as intentions to remain at the organization)

• discretionary effort (such as feeling inspired by the organization and being willing to go above and beyond formal role requirements).

If the definition is not encompassing all three components, the survey may limit an organization’s ability to drive change.

Translate the definition into a clear and concise set of questions: Getting the right mix of the above three components is important. Think of it this way: Even if we know the right ingredients for a recipe, we need to know the proper amounts for each ingredient.

For example, focus less on questions about people wanting to stay at your company to earn a living and more on their ability to feel aligned with the organization and to contribute their efforts.

This means the engagement index will likely include a series of questions (typically at least five and no more than 10) that go beyond a one-dimensional measure.

Focus on engagement as an outcome, not a broad concept of everything in the survey: Many organizations continue to assume all the survey questions contribute to engagement, and then
developing one overall number as the engagement score. This could be an average of 60 to 75 items.

This typically results in a favourable score of somewhere between 55 per cent and 65 per cent and can mask true engagement by averaging out the results. Engagement should be a clean outcome.

Understand the drivers of engagement at the organization: You can research articles on what drives engagement as a starting point, but each employer is somewhat unique. Think about why employees come to work for your organization rather than for others.

For example, in the public sector, the concept of contributing to the public good is more of a driver than in the private sector.

Include these concepts in the employee survey to understand the impact of these factors in driving overall engagement. Using what is referred to as “key driver analysis” reveals which survey items are most important in explaining engagement.

Consider adding a measure of enablement to the survey: Employee engagement and enablement are distinct outcomes that are influenced by different factors, according to Hay Group.

To get the most from employees, leaders must not only motivate them but enable them to channel their extra efforts productively. When you develop a measure of how enabled employees are, consider questions that indicate whether they are in a role that makes optimal use of their skills and abilities, ensuring work environments are facilitating their productivity rather than inhibiting it.

Hold leaders accountable for engaging and enabling employees: Leaders seeking to improve the effectiveness of their teams need to determine whether performance issues are the result of a lack of engagement, a lack of enablement, or both. Action implications will differ depending on the answer. Leaders also need to be held accountable for their own plans.

With a well-designed survey, HR can help drive true change. But the wrong survey can frustrate employees, focus on the wrong actions and potentially do more harm than good.

Remember, you are trying to make the organization more effective by engaging employees and enabling them to succeed — it is not about improving the engagement score on a survey.

David Sissons is the Toronto-based vice-president of Hay Group Insight, a global management consulting firm. He can be reached at (416) 815-6439 or [email protected].

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