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What You Think You Know About Employee Engagement–and What You Don’t

Brian Deyo
Brian Deyo

The following post was co-written by Brian Deyo and Heather Mueller.

(May 16, 2017) — Within the human resources realm, there’s so much focus on employee engagement—engagement surveys, engagement polls, and engagement initiatives—that it would be easy to assume it’s a well-established concept grounded in proven principles and sound academic theories.

But the employee engagement space is still murky at best. To quote two of my most-admired experts on the subject, William H. Macey and Benjamin Schneider:

“Although compelling on the surface, the meaning of the employee engagement concept is unclear. In large part, this can be attributed to the ‘bottom-up’’ manner in which the engagement notion has quickly evolved within the practitioner community.”

If you find “employee engagement” to be confusing, you’re not alone. Macey and Schneider have noted that many industry HR consultants avoid defining the term, instead referring only to “its presumed positive consequences.”

As these consultants and others in the business community continue to pave a path for defining and measuring employee engagement, the truth is that there’s little academic research to back up much of what’s being done to create and leverage it.

Companies that fail to factor in this lack of evidential support when creating employee surveys and evaluating engagement measurement tools could be at risk of tackling the “wrong” problem. Allow me to explain…


Here’s What You’ve Probably Heard About Employee Engagement

If you’ve been reading up on employee engagement, you’ve no doubt come across statistics from Gallup, such as “70% of U.S. workers are not engaged at work” and “companies with high engagement are 22% more profitable.”

These reports are often cited as evidence for the need for various engagement solutions and services, even though the methodologies behind them are focused more on job satisfaction. The outcome is oversimplifying a process that should actually be highly complex.

While many popular “engagement” surveys do address issues of importance, they do not always tell the whole story.

For example, a common approach is to measure job satisfaction and basic loyalty with questions such as:

  • Would you recommend this company to others?
  • Do you feel like you have sufficient contact with your coworkers?
  • Are you searching for another job?

Depending on the answers, the company might decide to hold more one-on-one meetings or introduce new employee benefits—solutions that allow HR to check a box, but in reality don’t help leaders understand the underlying psychological conditions of meaningful engagement.


What Employee Engagement Measurements Often Miss

Despite claims to the contrary, measuring and improving employee engagement is not a simple or quick solution. In fact, I’d argue that many current measurement solutions are focusing on the wrong things.

For perspective, compare the sample questions above to a quote taken from testimony delivered to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions:

“Engagement is above and beyond simple satisfaction with the employment arrangement or basic loyalty to the employer—characteristics that most companies have measured for many years. Engagement, in contrast, is about passion and commitment—the willingness to invest oneself and expend one’s discretionary effort to help the employer succeed.”

While surveys focused on job satisfaction may reveal insights into work conditions that have an impact on engagement, they do not measure levels of engagement itself. The very definition of engagement is ‘‘to be actively committed, as to a cause”—not recommending a job to others because of benefits.

True employee engagement is very different from job engagement. One focuses on work; the other on the organization.


What This Means for You

If you want to realize the benefits of true employee engagement—things like greater innovation, creativity, and productivity—effective measurement is essential. Any questions you ask in a survey should focus on the hearts and minds of employees.

Whether you measure employee engagement internally or use a vendor, effective surveys will include words and phrases tied to organizational passion. Examples include “focus,” “vigor,” “dedication” and “sense of purpose.” Instead of the examples above, an effective survey will ask employees to respond to statements (using Likert scale responses) such as:

  • “Most days I feel enthusiastic about my work.”
  • “I feel happy when I am working intensely.”
  • “When I am working, I often lose track of time.”

Doing this will help you glean valid responses based on the actual underlying drivers of engagement.

In conclusion: When looking for an employee engagement solution, take everything you hear with a grain of salt. As the industry evolves, academics are painting a different picture of what it means to measure true engagement—one that companies would be wise to embrace. In the words of Macey and Schneider, “companies that get these conditions right will have accomplished something that competitors will find very difficult to imitate.”

Are you looking to create a true measure of employee engagement? Emplify’s measurement tools are grounded in the psychological conditions of engagement for the utmost validity and lasting impact. Schedule a demo, and we’ll give you an inside look.

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