Monday, 9 March 2015

Can you ever have too much of a good thing?

When your organisation may not want high ‘engagement’

If you read this, then chances are you work for an organisation that uses some form of tool to measure Employee Engagement. You yourself may even be quite involved with the measurement and analysis itself, in which case the mantra ‘High Levels of Engagement are Good’ is likely to be firmly etched on your brain.

For the benefit of mutual understanding, it may be good to just briefly define what I mean by (employee) engagement. Employee Engagement in my book is an individual’s focus on their organisation's goals and values, motivation to contribute to its success, and a sense of pride to be part of this.

The way organisations measure engagement varies, but frequently includes asking people about their understanding of, and buy-in to, the organisation’s strategy, goals and values, some sort of measurement of ‘willingness to contribute / go the extra mile’, questions around pride to be associated with the organisation (aka ‘willingness to wear the T-shirt’) and last but not least, whether they see their medium to long term future with this employer.

In an ideal (fully engaged) situation, an employee responds positively to all of the above. And given that there is – seemingly – a strong correlation between these individual aspects of engagement, you’d be forgiven to think that as far as employees are concerned, it is usually all or nothing. Or in other words: they are either fully engaged, or they are not. Reality however, is often a lot more complicated.

If, as many organisations do, you first and foremost judge your levels of employee engagement through an average score based on all aspects of engagement, you may well be rather pleased when your score has gone up versus prior years, or is higher than your benchmark(s). Yet, chances are you should be concerned.

Because what may be happening is that your (average) score is ‘propped up’ by high levels of ‘desire to stay with the organisation’, whilst levels of strategy buy in, pride and willingness to contribute are average at best. If that looks familiar, what you need to ask yourself is: “what makes these people want to stay?” “Are we paying significantly more than elsewhere in our industry? Have we provided them with golden handcuffs?” In other words: is it really beneficial to have a workforce which is loyal, but which doesn’t necessarily buy in to what you stand for? Does this type of ‘engagement’ really benefit your set up?

Another less than desirable Engagement scenario is where, again, your average score may look okay, but where ‘Pride’ is pulling up the average, with all other elements trailing. Why are staff (still) proud to be with the organisation, when they don’t fully buy-in to your strategy and / or are less than willing to go the extra mile? A scenario like this is more common than you think, and often emerges in organisations or sectors which traditionally carry significant status, yet where management is increasingly failing to ‘take staff with them’ in their efforts to drive change. Or where employees are simply exhausted by the constant change in direction and priorities they face. Good examples of the latter can be found in Education and (public) Health Care.

The best, no, only way to avoid falling in this trap is a simple one: don’t narrow Employee Engagement down to just one number. Only by making sure you look at your employees through all engagement filters available can you judge whether you have a truly healthy level of Engagement, one which will help your organisation move forward. Or is your conclusion that some aspects may need work? Engagement, Pride, Effort and Loyalty should go hand in hand, but where they don’t, best to make sure it isn’t false loyalty that is pulling the cart! And only by having a really good insight in what drives the various aspects of Engagement in your organisation can you work towards improving not just the sum, but all its underlying parts.

Ruud Jansen Venneboer
Managing Partner
Think the Unthinkable


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