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How Employee Engagement is Like a Science Experiment


Disclaimer: I am NOT a scientifically-minded person. My husband and I play bar trivia every Monday night, and I audibly groan whenever they call out a science question. I haven’t taken a chemistry or biology class since high school, and I opted to take a class called “Flora of Indiana” in college to fulfill my science credit. We walked around collecting flowers and pressing them into a book. It was perfect.

But even though I can’t tell you what the solid form of carbon dioxide is, I understand that in most areas of business, you sometimes need to put your science hat on to set goals and solve problems. On 15Five’s Marketing team, we are constantly testing, iterating and drawing conclusions on new messaging or tactics to create better demand for our sales team. The thing is, while many departments within your business operate with this data-first mindset, your employee engagement decisions are often based on the opposite: feelings. Mushy, confusing feelings.

Why You Need To Keep an ION Your People Data (Get It, Guys?)

I recently read the book Trust Factor by Paul Zak, a neuroscientist who specializes in how our chemistry as humans affects what we want out of our jobs. Through his extensive scientific research, he has created a framework he appropriately calls OXYTOCIN (also named after the “love hormone”), with each letter symbolizing a key element of employee engagement that organizations need to create more emotionally-invested workers. Zak coupled baseline data about what humans crave at work with blood tests where he would gauge a worker’s oxytocin levels before and after participating in several engagement-boosting activities. He then drew conclusions about what employees need to be truly engaged at work.

Even if you’d rather press flowers than take a chemistry class, it’s important to apply a scientific mindset to your cultural engagement initiatives. Not only does this potentially validate your current efforts and ideas, but it helps you invest your time more wisely into initiatives that you know will actually work.

Take a page out of Zak’s book and start treating your employee engagement initiatives like science experiments. Not sure where to start? Here’s your 101 course:

  1. Gather baseline data about your engagement levels. In order to pinpoint potential areas of experimentation with your employee engagement, you need to first understand where you currently stand. To do that, you need to establish a baseline engagement score to compare your results against. If you’re not already conducting an employee engagement survey with your team, consider implementing one to understand how your employees score on true employee engagement drivers like purpose in their roles, autonomy to make decisions, and focus at work.
  2. Use your insights to hypothesize a change. The most effective employee engagement surveys give you concise, actionable insights that easily translate into change initiatives at your business. Once you have clarity on the low points of engagement, create a hypothesis around what change may improve your company culture. If you need more validation before running your “experiment,” don’t be afraid to dig deeper and ask more questions around the cultural gaps on your team. It will just help you create stronger baseline data to support your test.
  3. Run your experiment. In Trust Factor, Zak cites that a 10% increase in an employee’s trust in his or her company’s leaders has the same impact on engagement as a 36% increase in salary. The most important “control” when it comes to testing your employee engagement strategy is actually communicating your efforts transparently with your team. Let them know that you care about their engagement and that you are trying new ideas based on their feedback to create positive change. Even if the experiment is a dud, your employees will value the fact that you reacted to their opinions.
  4. Validate your assumptions. Once you’ve run your experiment, validate your hypothesis by gathering feedback from your employees about whether the change helped or hurt their engagement. The key here is to survey your team in a regular fashion, through both quarterly surveys and pulse feedback questions, to keep your results from becoming obsolete. Wouldn’t you rather know ASAP if your experiment failed so you can roll back the change, rather than waiting until your next annual survey and potentially wasting months of action?

After you’ve run your first cultural science experiment, as Paul Zak says in his book, “Lather. Rinse. Repeat.” Looking for tools to get started? Through 15Five’s unique annual and quarterly employee engagement survey, we provide leaders with the validation and clarity they need to take action on their employee engagement hypotheses. And since we’re on a science roll, 15Five’s survey questions are based on neurological conditions and psychometrically-validated drivers that get at the heart of true employee engagement. Just start throwing those words into your conversations at work, and people will definitely think that you’re a bona fide data nerd.

And actually, the solid form of carbon dioxide is dry ice. Thanks, bar trivia.


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