Walk into your local bookstore and there’s no shortage of advice for leaders and managers. Amazon offers 7,000 books about culture, 2,000 books on leadership, and more than 134 books specifically devoted to employee engagement. A Google search for books containing the term “employee engagement” returns 93,000 results. Meanwhile, the total volume of Google searches for employee engagement has risen more than threefold over the past 14 years.
The landscape for employee engagement measurement offers an overwhelming volume of content, is changing rapidly, and can make it difficult to compare one solution to another. That’s why we’ve written this guide – to help you make sense of the market and quickly identify what’s important for your team’s performance.
Section 1: Why Employee Engagement Matters
Undisclosed location in the Arabian Gulf.
The nuclear-powered submarine USS Santa Fe lurks in shallow water, its crew preparing to fire a submarine-launched torpedo. Everyone is in position and awaiting the order.
“Target, bearing…MARK,” announces the lieutenant commander. The enemy ship was in sight.
“Shoot tube three,” orders captain David Marquet. The Santa Fe shudders briefly, sending the torpedo on its way.
“Torpedo running hot, straight, and normal,” reports a crew member.
A moment later, instruments signal a direct hit. Captain Marquet glances at Rear Admiral Joseph Krol, Commander of Submarine Group Seven, who looks pleased at the exercise.
Admiral Krol is on board to evaluate the Santa Fe during this friendly exercise with the USS Olympia. Given the success of the mission, it’s hard to imagine that just a year ago this high performing Santa Fe crew were considered poor performers by most naval performance measures.
In his book, Turn the Ship Around!, Captain Marquet chronicles how the Santa Fe advanced from last to first, accomplishing 100 percent officer retention, record promotions, and received the Arleigh Burke Fleet Trophy award for greatest improvement in battle efficiency during the calendar year. By developing leaders and engaged crew members, Santa Fe became one of the top performing naval vessels of all time.
Most executives desire this level of effectiveness from their teams. Who doesn’t want engaged employees who are enthusiastic about their work, aligned with one-another, and focused on meaningful goals that impact stakeholders and the bottom line? But keeping your finger on the pulse of the organization is more difficult when, unlike on a submarine, your team isn’t always within 150 feet of you. What is needed is practical guidance on how to measure the engagement of your people so you can implement effective people strategies without torpedoing your budget.
The leader’s dilemma
It’s challenging for leaders these days. Multiple trends are altering the workplace, creating rapid change and resulting in performance headwinds:
- New technology permeates every aspect of business and personal life, introducing continuous change and eroding operational advantages.
- Demographics shift as millennials become a larger segment of the workforce and must learn to collaborate alongside boomers and Gen X.
- Consumer technology has elevated customer experience expectations, turning remarkable experiences from leading brands into status quo expectations for everyone else.
- Social media and Glassdoor have made internal company culture transparent to the outside world, shining a light on issues such as gender equality, diversity, and equal pay.
- Unemployment is at historic lows, generating a shortage of skilled workers.
These trends are adjusting the expectations of HR from administrative to strategic focus. Even the sacred cow of HR—the annual performance review—is being slaughtered. This is not all bad, as Adobe discovered, following their 2012 decision to eliminate reviews for their 11,000 employees. By replacing a complex performance review infrastructure that required 80,000 hours of time from 2,000 managers each year, relief has spread throughout the company for employees who viewed their old annual review as “a soul-less and soul crushing exercise.”
Not every impact from this change is easy, however. Acute pressure is being placed on middle managers and supervisors, especially in organizations with flattened structures. Managers are handed more responsibility to not only hit financial numbers, but also become career coaches, confidants, and counselors within their teams. But when the scarcest resource for most managers is time, when are they supposed to do all of these developmental things? The answer all too often is… they won’t. And as highly competent individual performers are promoted to management roles, business leaders are not providing them with the tools and training necessary to empower them to succeed.
In her book, Powerful, Patty McCord, former head of HR at Netflix, describes a conversation she had with the head of learning and development at another software company. The L&D leader stated that their younger people needed to become better managers. But when McCord pressed with, “Specifically doing what?” The response was, “Management.” This unprepared perspective is not uncommon among organizations.
Schools aren’t helping either. They fail to equip managers with training beyond cognitive learning. As Henry Mintzberg pointed out in his classic HBR article, “The Manager’s Job,” “Cognitive learning no more makes a manager than it does a swimmer. The latter will drown the first time she jumps into the water if her coach never takes her out of the lecture hall, gets her feet wet, and gives her feedback on her performance.”
Feedback is important because a manager’s effectiveness is significantly influenced by their insight into their own work. Managers need a comprehensive picture to understand what is happening with complex issues. And what’s more complex than human beings? But complexity can make it difficult to distinguish between feedback that is important vs feedback that can be disregarded. When signal becomes indistinguishable from noise, it’s natural to stop paying attention and become dismissive. But dismissing engagement measurement can be costly.
High performing, motivated teams are often the leading predictive indicator of how well leaders are performing. When employee engagement is viewed as the barometer of performance, engagement measurement becomes vital to helping leaders and managers assess their own competency and develop their teams.
Engagement is a winning outcome
Companies have discovered that measuring and then improving engagement for employees throughout the organization is a winning strategy. Research from the Hay Group compared firms of engaged people to their disengaged counterparts and found they had 89 percent greater customer satisfaction and 50 percent higher customer loyalty while managing to maintain 54 percent better employee retention. Another study found that organizations with higher than average employee engagement realized 27 percent higher profits, 50 percent higher sales, and 4x revenue growth.
These findings are reinforced by research from Alex Edmans at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, who analyzed the performance of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For from 1984 to 2005. The result: these companies exceeded the financial performance of their peers by 73.5 percent. This performance trend has continued to hold true in recent years. While $1,000 invested in the S&P in January 2012 would have yielded $1,699 by the end of 2016, the same investment would have more than doubled for Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For and tripled for companies that invest heavily in employees’ cultural, technological, and physical work environments. (Figure below)
And not only do companies with engaged employees outperform their peers, they also pay more. Employees in organizations that scored high for trust earned 17 percent more ($6,450) than employees at orgs with low trust in one study (Trust Factors, p.197). While it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that companies are more engaged because they pay more, consider that the only way this is sustainable in a competitive market is when these better-paid employees are more productive.
In addition to financial outcomes, there are other benefits to employee engagement, such as less infighting and reduced political silos. Also, evidence exists that engagement is linked to reduction in employee absenteeism. Engagement has also been shown to reduce stress and thereby stress-related illness. And for many executives, employee engagement can create a powerful and lasting personal legacy with employees, their families, and the community.
Before looking at what engagement is and how to measure it, it’s helpful to begin thinking about employee engagement as a strategy rather than a survey. Engaging leaders like Captain Marquet are not content with the satisfaction of their crew, team, or organization. They are adept at capturing minds and hearts. If you plan to do the same, you’ll need clarity about what engagement is and how to address it with your team.
Section 2: What is Employee Engagement
The construct of employee engagement can be confusing in part because of the lack of unity in how it’s discussed. HR leaders, consultants, and even academics describe engagement differently and sometimes try to assign new labels such as employee feedback, employee voice, or employee experience. These new terms can sometimes be unhelpful comparisons for engagement because their concepts are very broad. And when many vendors fail to deliver on the broadness of their claims, leaders lose trust in the actions advised.
Employee engagement is a psychological state where an employee’s intellectual and emotional connection with their employer is demonstrated by motivation and commitment to the company’s vision and goals. But in all fairness, employee engagement is in some ways an improved evolution of previous constructs like employee satisfaction, morale, burnout, commitment, and motivation. While these things are all highly desirable pieces of engagement, they fall short of painting the full picture.
Consider an employee who is satisfied. They might be someone who is sitting back in their chair, content to maintain the status quo but not motivated to contribute more. Contrast this picture with an employee who is leaning forward, ready to take on new challenges and make meaningful contributions to the team. Which would you prefer in your organization?
A brief history of employee engagement
The term Employee Engagement was first coined by Boston University’s William Kahn in his 1990 paper, Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work. In it, Kahn describes how he observed people bringing themselves into and out of moments with regard to their work. He went on to propose that three psychological conditions need to be present as the soil in which engagement might take root: meaning, safety (psychological), and availability (emotional, physical, and psychological).
Before Kahn, the focus of the 1980s was on burnout and how to reduce voluntary turnover. Christina Maslach and Susan Jackson created the “Maslach Burnout Inventory” (MBI) in 1981 to measure emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment. There are now five versions of the MBI, which form the basis of the “Jobs Demands-Resources” (JDI) perspective.
Before burnout, in the mid-1970s, Greg Oldham and Richard Hackman published work that centered around the characteristic of jobs, which they dubbed “Job Characteristics Theory” (JCT). The idea behind JCT is that motivation relates to experiencing psychological states while working, which are affected by the characteristics of the job itself. To measure this, Oldham and Hackman constructed a JCT survey that asked about the psychological states of meaningfulness of work, personal responsibility, and knowledge of outcomes.
Following World War II, a psychologist named Frederick Herzberg proposed something called the two-factor theory, which showed that satisfaction and dissatisfaction at work nearly always arose from differing “hygiene” and “motivator” factors. He used these factors to explain why some people work hard and others don’t. To conduct his research, Herzberg interviewed 200 accountants in Pittsburg using the “Critical Incident Technique” (CIT), which Colonel John C. Flanagan developed for the Aviation Psychology Program of the United States Army Air Forces.
Perhaps most interestingly, the study of organizational dynamics can be traced back to original thinkers Mary Parker Follet and Lilian Gilbreth in the 1920s. Follet studied power and the motivating desires of the individual vs the group by observing group dynamics in community gatherings across New York. But her ideas were largely forgotten after her death, until years later when researchers rediscovered Follet’s writings and began to reassign credit to her.
Modern engagement thinking
In 2002, four researchers (Wilmar B. Schaufeli, Marisa Salanova, Vicente González-romá, and Arnold B. Bakker) created a new instrument to measure the concept of engagement, which they published in a paper titled, “The Measurement of Engagement and Burnout: A Two Sample Confirmatory Factor Analytic Approach.”
The paper introduces three factors for the positive psychology construct of engagement: vigor, dedication, and absorption. The survey instrument they created to measure these factors, called the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale (UWES), has become the most commonly used scale in academic papers for measuring engagement. The third factor, absorption, is reminiscent of another breakthrough concept that was already gaining popularity back in America.
During the same year Kahn published his employee engagement research, University of Chicago psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, published a book titled Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience. Csikszentmihalyi undertook one of the largest psychological surveys ever—interviewing experts (i.e., athletes, surgeons, chess players) before moving on to pretty much everyone else—including assembly line workers, teenage motorcycle gang members, and Navajo sheep herders— and asking them about times when they performed their best.
The word that kept popping up in interviews when people described performing at peak levels was “flow.” While Csikszentmihalyi’s research was groundbreaking, it was more anecdotal than empirical. So the topic of flow went out of vogue until about a decade ago, when advancements in brain imaging opened new ways to research and measure brain function during the state of flow. Neuroscientists have now confirmed that Csikszentmihalyi was right. A team at Bonn University in Germany even discovered that flow includes performance-enhancing neurochemicals like endorphins, norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, and serotonin, which improve everything from muscle reaction times to lateral thinking to pattern recognition—all of which are supremely useful for problem solving.
“Flow sounds great in theory, but few business leaders have mastered the skill of generating it reliably in the workplace,” says Susie Cranston and Scott Keller in a January 2013 article for McKinsey Quarterly. They go on to describe how McKinsey asked 5,000 executives about their own personal peak performance with a team. The responses they heard fell into three categories:
- Intellectual quotient: rational elements like role clarity and access to the resources you need to get the job done.
- Emotional quotient: the quality of interactions with others such as mutual respect, sense of humor, and constructive conflict.
- Meaning quotient: sense of high stakes, challenge, and feeling that something matters and will make a difference.
It’s no wonder that the very executives who consider employee engagement such a top priority also find it somewhat daunting to assess. Engagement forms a center point in any good measurement model, yet there are several driving factors and conditions that influence it positively or negatively within an individual and team. These driving factors (or drivers) and conditions are important because they help transform measurement results into actionable insights.
Insights draw on data to infer conclusions. Good insights help explain why things are the way they are and what will happen next. To accomplish this, typically questions are employed to elicit responses; and the answers are analyzed using various methods that range from simplistic to sophisticated. These methods for measuring engagement are not all created equal.
Section 3: How to Measure Engagement
There are three reasons that engagement measurement is so valuable, according to HBR’s Scott Judd,
Eric O’Rourke, and Adam Grant:
1. Employee surveys are a great predictor of behavior.
2. They make people feel heard.
3. They’re a vehicle for changing behavior.
These conclusions come from findings at Facebook, where it turns out employees who don’t respond to either of two annual surveys are 2.6 times more likely to leave the company within six months.
If engagement measurement is so valuable, then why do so many employees express such disillusionment towards surveys? Legacy tools must be adapted to modern business practices to leverage their full potential. This puts a premium on selecting the right partner in a landscape filled with so many varying approaches and claims.
Historically, engagement measurement has been associated with the annual employee survey. Today, technology has ushered in the pulse survey, which can be aimed at employees in near real time for continuous feedback. Also, open-response questions have been added to the mix alongside the multiple choice items that have been a staple for providing feedback. These advancements have placed engagement measurement at an inflection point.
Your Employee Engagement Roadmap
We’ve talked about what engagement is and why it’s important. Now let’s equip you with the knowledge to thoughtfully evaluate options for your own organization. Consider it your map. And for traversing the landscape of engagement measurement, you have four primary modes of transportation from which to choose:
Consultants (the Ship)
The genesis of engagement measurement is consulting. Typically, large companies with big budgets and HR teams would conduct an annual survey using an outside consulting firm. The cumbersome and expensive nature of this exercise resulted in large-scale surveys only running every year or two.
The annual employee survey usually looks something like this: first, someone collects employee contact info across multiple HRIS or payroll systems, which might take weeks to accomplish. Then a consultant designs a survey, based on a combination of their own prescribed best practices and some questions the client wants answered. Finally, the survey runs and results are collected. After waiting three months for a team of junior consultants to enter data into spreadsheets, create reports, and compile their analysis into a 400-page binder, the results presentation becomes an afterthought to executive leaders.
Yes, consultants are the ships of engagement measurement—and they’re often big and slow. In some ways, they’ve evolved from a practical mode of transportation into a cruise line: less about getting somewhere and more about the travel experience itself. Like a shore excursion, consultants offer engagement surveys as an add-on to existing offerings (e.g., payroll, benefits, perks programs). But while both consultants and cruise ships can pack lots of activities into your journey (and take lots of your money), you always end up right back where you started.
Best place for HR to get PR (the Train)
Few can resist the pull to compete and best their peers. Employee engagement measurement is no exception. But the annual best place for HR to get PR survey has turned engagement measurement into bloodsport—the top prize being bragging rights and a sense of superiority. While sometimes a helpful marketing tool for recruitment, this approach is not very dependable at producing the actionable insights that reliably build a better performing workplace.
These competitive surveys also come with a deceptive offer: benchmarks against a lot of other firms like yours. But can you really trust benchmarks when the other participants who comprise the sample data set might be inflating their results in an effort to win PR? The benchmarks will most certainly skew higher than reality, which doesn’t help you discern how your team really stacks up and where you need to take action.
Think of these surveys as trains, a one-track approach to engagement measurement that’s great for blowing smoke but pretty limited in where you can go. It’s not uncommon for these surveys to be handed to employees with a knowing wink to answer favorably. And the resulting high marks give leaders a false sense of security while coming across as inauthentic to employees. Intended to attract new talent, winning can often be perceived by existing employees as hypocritical and is likely to derail meaningful engagement.
Automated pulse technology (the Self-Driving Car)
Technology has unlocked massive efficiencies in the survey process itself. Silicon Valley programmers in skinny jeans and ironic t-shirts have created dozens of “pulse survey” startups for gathering employee feedback. Where it once took months to execute and compile results from an employee survey, now any manager can do it with a few keystrokes. But many of these pulse tools deliver more feedback with less structure because they lack a model of engagement grounded in science. Pulse tools without a model usually generate one of two outcomes: haphazard question selection with unclear next steps, or watered down questions about what soda and snacks people want in the break room. After a few months of this, it’s not uncommon for employees to grow weary and stop responding.
Just as the future of the auto industry promises cars that drive themselves, pulse tools promise that you don’t need to worry about human psychology or hands-on service, because Artificial Intelligence (AI) will magically unlock the hidden secrets of human behavior. Many of these AI claims are like the zoo that was accused of painting a donkey to pass it off as a zebra – they look good on the surface, but wash out when rubber hits the road.
Don’t get us wrong, AI definitely has a place in the future of technology. But you probably don’t want to put your child or puppy in front of an unmanned Tesla just yet. As a recent HBR article about machine learning stated, “If companies are going to get real value from machine learning, they need to focus not just on technology, but on process.” And unfortunately, HR process is not always readily supported by managers across the org. Therefore, beware falling for a shiny object that may not live up to its promises unless you have the internal skills and resources to successfully extract value from it.
Tech-first (the Airplane)
A complementary relationship between technology and human service is the fourth vehicle for engagement measurement today. This method takes a tech-first approach to modernizing engagement measurement while retaining scientific insights. Technology makes it easier to administer a campaign and thus creates the option to gather feedback more often. Complementary tech within engagement measurement is the equivalent of an airplane—able to take you where you want to go over short or long distances, depending on the size of the plane and amount of fuel.
The trade-offs to a tech-first approach are that it often necessitates some level of outside services and is more expensive than driving (ie pulse alternatives). While planes today are well-equipped with technology, they still need a human to monitor the controls and land them safely. For engagement measurement, this is the equivalent of having someone interpret your results, craft action plans, and hold you accountable for getting where you want to go… without crashing.
As any aeronautics fanatic might point out, there are three foundational principles that haven’t changed since the Wright brothers’ first flight over 100 years ago: thrust, lift, and control. In the same way, organizational psychology has been researching human behavior within the workplace for decades, unearthing scientific principles which are still applicable to your organization. A good tech-first approach will incorporate (not dismiss) underlying principles into the assessment and analysis of your results.
What about internal surveys?
Before we look at how to establish a sound complementary tech strategy, it’s important to point out that a base level of competency and expertise are important, regardless of how you choose to measure engagement. So companies need the time, resources, and skills to pair the right technology with the right internal competency to run their own internal engagement measurement process.
However, many organizations simply don’t have the time or expertise to conduct an assessment on themselves. And even if they do have the requisite competency, there are still a number of things that can go wrong:
- Leadership team might not agree on what questions to ask and delay pulling the trigger on a campaign.
- Stakeholders could become defensive and question the data or results.
- Employees might fear retaliation because they don’t trust that their answers are actually anonymous.
- Leaders can fail to do anything with the results because they’re a) confused, b) distracted, or c) have their heads buried in the sand.
The right outside partner will help you operationalize engagement best practices at all levels of your organization, and in the process, create star employees and managers who carry performance to new heights.
Let’s take a closer look at the engagement measurement flight plan:
Step 1: Ask
Measurement implies that a thing, or construct, is being assessed. Thus, underlying engagement measurement questions are theories about human behavior and why it works the way it does. Survey instruments are used to capture behavior and attitudes in order to employ a mathematical approach to see if answers match the hypothesis and are thus trustworthy enough to act upon.
Open-ended and close-ended questions each have pros and cons. Close-ended questions can be standardized; standardized questions help track progress, ensure important areas of focus are not overlooked, provide a path to improvement, and offer guardrails to keep feedback on-topic. However, close-ended questions can also be deceptively tricky to write accurately and they provide less nuance about what employees think.
Open-ended questions provide a treasure trove of written nuance, flexibility, and speed to identifying issues or opportunities for improvement. However, it is time-consuming to read, process, and thoughtfully respond to open-ended questions. As a result, most employees will have a low threshold for how many they will actually respond to. Therefore, open-ended questions limit the number of inquiry topics, which creates a tradeoff: either ask broad questions to identify overarching issue patterns, or guess which issues matter enough to ask for more targeted, granular feedback.
Open-ended or close-ended questions—which method is the most effective and which should you choose? We suggest you use both.
You can leverage the responses to close-ended questions to drill down into specific areas using open-ended questions. This approach provides the flexibility of pulse questions while maintaining guardrails against overly broad open-ended responses, allowing you to stay focused on your top initiatives.
Engagement measurement is built on the premise that if you ask, you need to be prepared to act. For that action to be effective, it needs to be based on real, trustworthy insights. And insights are the byproduct of analyzing data. But poor data is surprisingly common—from errors in employee information to misleading questions to confusing responses. So buckle up for a quick flight through engagement measurement design best practices.
The science behind measurement
The science behind designing an engagement survey is important because correct execution produces quality data, which enables better insights and more effective decision-making. Here’s a quick primer on common organizational psychology terms that will help you assess the quality of a partner’s measurement sophistication.
Surveys are instruments, comprised of questions or statements known as items. Sets of items about the same topic are called scales. Well-constructed instruments (with scales) should be both reliable and valid. Reliable means the results are consistent and repeatable. Or said another way, questions about concepts that should correlate to each other actually do; and asking about the same thing multiple times should yield the same outcome.
Valid means the questions actually measure the thing they intend to measure, as opposed to also measuring something else. And while validity is usually what researchers are most concerned about, it can also be confusing, as there are multiple ways an instrument could be considered valid:
- Content validity: the questions reflect what could possibly be asked about the intended topic.
- Substantive validity: how closely the results reflect or line-up with the underlying construct.
- External/generalizability validity: the results can be generalized to other situations.
- Consequential validity: the predictive relationship between the question and an outcome.
- Structural validity: degree to which the questions measure what they’re supposed to.
In addition to being reliable and valid, instruments need to encourage participants to answer accurately. When an employee responds to a question, their brain executes four cognitive tasks: comprehension, retrieval from memory, judgement of relevant information, and response. In other words, they’ll read each question carefully, consider what they think about it, weigh their choices, then thoughtfully respond. Shortcuts to this process are what Stanford professor John Krosnick refers to as survey satisficing.
Satisficing happens when respondents shortcut their optimal response process in the face of cognitive demands. It’s bad because you fail to learn what the employee actually thinks. The primary causes for satisficing are perceived task difficulty and lack of motivation. Therefore, the instrument must make it as easy as possible to ask and answer questions so employees don’t take shortcuts in their minds, become confused, or give up completely. Here are seven tactics that well-crafted questions use to lower the likelihood of satisficing:
- Use fewer words. Having fewer words decreases the mental load of processing the question for comprehension. Remember that brevity is the key to clarity.
- Use familiar words. Know your audience and avoid words that might be unfamiliar to them.
- Avoid words with multiple definitions. Words that could be interpreted in multiple ways can cause confusion and increased cognitive strain.
- Ask about one concept at a time. Items that combine concepts (aka double-barreled questions), can both confuse the respondent as well as generate invalid data. (Ex: How satisfied were you with compensation and office environment?)
- Ask multiple questions about the same topic (scales). The utilization of sound scales helps provide more accurate data by averaging out the responses for a scale.
- Keep it short. In general, the less time required to complete a questionnaire the less cognitive demand, and thereby, lower likelihood of satisficing. Aim for respondents to finish in no more than 10 minutes. Include fewer items if respondents will be using mobile devices because it can take longer to complete than a desktop version.
- Be relevant. Every question should apply to every person being asked to complete a questionnaire, as false assumptions will introduce errors in your data.
Readability is key when writing engagement measurement questions. Popular tests like the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Readability Test and Gunning Fog Index automatically estimate reading level by analyzing syllables, sentence length, and other proxies for vocabulary complexity. For reference, the children’s book Goodnight Moon is a 2nd grade level on the Flesch-Kincaid scale. While Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone comes in at a 5th grade level, and Jim Collins’ Good to Great is a 10th grade reading level.
Good data hinges on good responses
Questions should avoid agree–disagree responses because studies show that asking people to rate their level of agreement is a cognitively demanding task that increases error and reduces how much effort respondents are willing to devote. (Fowler, 2009; Krosnick, 1999). Instead, the most widely accepted question format for reliable and valid insight is the likert question.
Likert questions present statements accompanied by optional responses, which are appropriately named response scales. They offer a range of choices, called anchor points, that allow an employee to indicate their attitude or feeling about a statement (ex: strongly agree / agree / don’t know / disagree / strongly disagree). The number of anchor points included needs to adequately differentiate between responses while maintaining validity and reliability. Provide too few points, and it can become difficult to discern what a person actually thinks. Too many, and the reliability of responses drops off.
For most situations, a 5- or 7-point scale will work well (Krosnick, 1999; Weng, 2004). Consider using 5-point scales for unipolar concepts (0 to infinity) and 7-point scales for bipolar items (negative infinity to positive infinity). It’s also important to take into account where respondents will view the measurement assessment. Questionnaires taken on small screens (e.g., mobile phones) are better suited for 5-point response scales.
You may have noticed the absence of even-numbered response scales. Some researchers like the idea of forcing the choice between sides of the scale because they view the midpoint as a neutral answer that fails to offer an opinion (i.e., using 6- or 8-point anchor points). However, empirical research indicates this is not the case. In fact, it appears that reliability is highest when a midpoint is present. Therefore, forcing people to pick a side of the scale could introduce inaccuracy into the resulting data.
Of course, the most well-designed items and responses are not helpful if your employees don’t respond. A number of factors can contribute to response rate, such as the aesthetics of the questionnaire, difficulty in completing it, and number of questions. As you might expect, the more questions you ask, the lower the expected response rate. However, studies indicate the rate of drop-off is not linear. Adding one more question has a more significant impact on drop-off rate for a 10-question assessment than adding another question to a 50-item assessment.
For reference, it’s not uncommon for engagement measurement instruments with more than 50 items to still achieve 75-95% response rates. However, keep in mind that expected response rate varies by industry and company. It’s generally wise to set internal expectations for response rate based on appropriate increases rather than historic engagement surveys that have been administered within the same organization.
Step 2: Align
The key to successfully administering an engagement measurement tool with organizational buy-in is to have a clear, well-thought-out, and reasonable plan. The plan should include milestones with target dates and account for what will happen if and when something jeopardizes the plan. This becomes very handy when you need to address the concerns of other stakeholders on your team and will keep your project on track when inevitable glitches occur.
Timing and alignment are two key components of an engagement measurement plan. A measurement campaign should be scheduled to maximize the reliability of the data outcome. This includes picking a time period when employees are most likely to participate. Major holidays and vacation schedules should be avoided as much as possible. Also, you need employees to answer in a way that accurately represents their attitudes and feelings, so it’s best to avoid measuring engagement immediately after significant organizational changes. For example, measuring engagement after a company-wide bonus could artificially inflate the results.
Don’t try to wait until the stars align and timing is perfect. It can be tempting to delay engagement measurement until there are fewer items on your plate or the initiative gains universal consensus. Ironically, engagement measurement is the very thing that can help generate more consensus and alignment across the organization.
Set proper expectations through communication
Communication is another important and often overlooked component for successful engagement measurement. To increase data quality, ask employees to provide their best answers. Also, tell them why measuring engagement is important and why their own personal responses are important. (And don’t forget to thank them for their time!) A good engagement measurement partner will offer suggested language and templates to use in crafting your communications and help you discern when to use them.
Communicating proper expectations will help set employees’ minds at ease. Be clear about who will (and won’t) have access to results and the level of confidentiality of responses. Enforced confidentiality will allow employees to answer with more candor and without fear of repercussion. This is one area where outside partners have a leg-up over internally administered assessments, as employees are usually skeptical that if push comes to shove, their HR team will not breach confidentiality. Industry best practice for maintaining confidentiality is to not grant access to individuals’ private data and to present results in groups of no less than five respondents.
Balancing confidentiality with employee reporting can be challenging. Even teams of five can present a problem if one individual fails to participate, because the remaining four should not be reported to protect their confidentiality. Therefore, thoughtful groupings of employees based on accurate, up-to-date employee information will have a significant impact on the insights presented in reports and dashboards. Your engagement measurement partner should work with you when importing employee lists to optimize what employee characteristics to include and how to arrange your data.
Employee data paves the way for employee insights
Here’s a sample list of the types of employee groupings you’ll want to consider for your organization:
- Business units
As you can see, there are many employee data points that contribute to high-quality engagement insights. In some situations, it can be overwhelming for HR teams to gather the necessary data for each individual employee—particularly if HR is not equipped with a well-organized, centralized database of employee records.
To help maintain current, accurate employee records, sophisticated engagement measurement solutions will invite employees to update their own data. Just as millions of people willingly update their information on social media, a company directory with employee profiles nudges employees to maintain and confirm their own information without the nagging request of HR administrators.
Step 3: Act
One of the primary reasons employees have become disillusioned with measurement is because it feels to them like a waste of time. This is due to their low confidence that anything will actually change based on their feedback. Logically, this makes sense. When someone asks for an opinion then acts upon it, most people will gladly provide their opinion. However, failing to follow up or do anything with feedback will cause most people to stop offering.
The tendency to not follow through on engagement measurement happens frequently, and might be considered foolish. However, in most cases, it’s not due to malicious or ill intent. On the contrary, one of the traps for an annual approach to engagement measurement strategy is the pressure to look at comprehensive feedback and attempt to address every issue that’s raised. This is a fool’s errand for most organizations, as most don’t allocate the necessary resources and time required to handle such an ambitious scope. To counteract this tendency, it’s helpful to have a repeatable system that reinforces the behaviors that will help you achieve your performance objectives. The ideal system should help with prioritization, accountability, delegation, and agility.
Prioritization: If everything is important, nothing is
One of the chief downfalls of employee engagement efforts is a lack of prioritization. Too many executives want to do everything, barely do something, achieve results amounting to nothing, and conclude that it’s not worth it to do anything. This is commonly thought of as the spaghetti strategy—throw things against the wall and see what sticks. The hang-up is that boxes of spaghetti are cheap, but many worthwhile engagement initiatives are not. So there’s a tendency to either waste a lot of money until stumbling upon a tactic that works or put a lot of effort into low-risk initiatives. Neither approach really address areas that would actually make a lasting impact on engagement, and thereby, performance.
The solution to this dilemma is to know in advance what areas of focus would be most impactful for your organization. With this information in hand, you can put resources behind the areas where you’ll get the most juice for your HR squeeze. But how do you know where to focus your effort? The answer is sophisticated statistical correlation and simple dashboards.
Not all drivers of engagement matter at every organization. This is, in part, the vexing reason behind why one high-profile executive can publish a book about how they created a market dominating culture, but when you try the same tactics at your organization, they flop. This is also the danger in selecting an engagement measurement partner who promotes a narrow perspective, as if engagement were a one-size-fits-all affair. It’s not.
Statistical correlation can, however, help you understand which factors have the greatest influence on employee engagement. This, combined with easy-to-use dashboards, can help quickly narrow in on what drivers are most impactful for which segments of the organization. The goal then becomes to find the top one or two initiatives that will have the greatest impact, then focus maniacally on doing something about it. Most leaders are pleasantly surprised by the ROI they obtain from this “do less but obsess” approach to engagement.
Accountability: Find someone you trust
It can be easy to let engagement efforts slide to the backburner. They tend to fall into the important-but-not-urgent bucket. That is, until something catches on fire when a key employee leaves, growth puts strain on a culture that previously worked just fine, or competitors begin to recruit better talent and outpace your innovation. Yes, it’s true that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to employee engagement.
The way to ensure that important follow-through doesn’t slip is to get a coach. There’s a reason that even professional athletes at the top of their games have coaches. Coaches provide objectivity, perspective, accountability, and occasional encouragement to draw out the best in their players. The same is true of a good engagement measurement partner. A good engagement coach should be someone you trust enough to listen to. Usually this means you believe they genuinely want to help you succeed, they’re competent, and they care about you enough to tell you what you need to hear, not just what you want to hear.
Another tactic to foster accountability is to tell others about planned actions. Such public proclamations can foster accountability and increase the likelihood you’ll take action. For engagement measurement, this might entail telling employees what you heard, what you’ll do, and when you’ll follow up to share what you did. An added benefit of this maneuver is often increased response rates from employees who see that their leaders are listening and implementing change.
Delegation: Everyone needs to become responsible
While you may be accountable for engagement measurement, everyone in your organization should become responsible for making work more engaging for themselves and their teammates. This means that education and empowerment need to become a part of the senior management playbook.
It’s not uncommon for supervisors and middle managers to be initially suspicious of engagement measurement. For some, they risk losing more than they stand to gain. It’s important that engagement measurement be communicated to them as a tool to help, not as a way to punish them. You’ll want a partner who is experienced in helping organizations like yours obtain buy-in from managers in order to build a culture of action. This becomes especially important as an organization grows larger and it becomes impossible for senior management to interact directly with all levels of hierarchy.
One tactic that can feel like a form of punishment to managers is to dump results in their laps to “figure out” with no education around what the data means and/or the permission to implement the necessary changes. Manager performance should be supported by an engagement measurement partner that provides access to training resources and the option for hands-on coaching at all levels of the organization.
Agility: Annual is inadequate
While engagement measurement used to be something that happened every 1-2 years, the pace of business has accelerated and placed a premium on the ability to adjust to changing demands, risks, opportunities, and situations. This need for agility is reflected in most other departments in modern organizations (i.e., sales, marketing, operations, finance, and customer service) operating using real-time dashboards and metrics. Engagement, and thereby HR, must also become agile to adequately support the demands of the business.
The core concept behind “agile” is to assess something, take action, reassess what happened, and adjust accordingly. As discussed, action is a critical step if engagement measurement is to generate better performance outcomes. Therefore, in principle, it’s recommended that organizations measure as often as they’re able to take action on that feedback.
Certainly an annual measurement cadence is inadequate for agile engagement. However, the other extreme of weekly pulse checks can also be counterproductive. Many teams find that weekly or biweekly surveys feel like an unwelcome distraction over time. While short, these pulse tools still introduce a switching cost of focus within the work day. Consider that it might be better to ask for five minutes to complete one measurement campaign versus requiring one min to answer a single question on five separate occasions.
So if pulse is too frequent and annual is not frequent enough, what is the right cadence for engagement measurement? The answer is that it depends on your organization. However, the vast majority of companies benefit from a quarterly cadence. Your engagement measurement solution should allow for the option of quarterly, while giving you the flexibility to tailor frequency to the drumbeat of your organization, allowing you to skip a quarter if and when it makes sense.
Engagement measurement unlocks opportunities for meaningful performance growth within organizations. That is, if you take action on what you learn. Engagement measurement for measurement’s sake is counterproductive and expensive—both in terms of dollars spent and credibility lost with employees. Thus, it bears repeating: don’t ask if you’re not prepared to act. For those who aren’t accustomed to acting upon data, don’t be surprised if it feels overwhelming at first. Stay the course and you’ll wonder how you ever operated without it.
Since you cannot reasonably act on every point of feedback, you’ll need to ruthlessly prioritize. Remember, the engagement measurement path is paved with CEOs who took an annual survey, made a list of 50 things, assigned them to 10 committees, and failed to follow through. These executives are typically dismissive of the results that we’re suggesting are possible. If this is you, please understand the spirit of what we’re saying.
It’s not uncommon to have executive leaders express gratitude when they find a partner who will tell them what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. You too will need to find someone who will tell you the truth (with respect) and hold you accountable to ascend to the great heights to which you are capable.
While you may be accountable for leading the way in your organization, you’re not the only one responsible. Every employee should take ownership of their own engagement and their contributions to the engagement of their teams. Work is high-stakes with careers and lives on the line. So make engagement measurement not just an executive exercise, but accessible across the organization. Communicate well. Give managers the tools to thrive. Set realistic progress expectations. And celebrate growth as it occurs.
Growth is a process and engagement measurement is a strategy—a strategy involving the hearts and minds of your people. People are complex, with differing perspectives that are prone to change from time to time. Therefore, worry less about copying other organizations because they have different people. Implement your own agile engagement strategy by keeping your head on a swivel and adapting to feedback from your team frequently and consistently.
Think of engagement measurement like repelling down the side of a mountain: it’s scary at first, challenging on the way down, and rewarding at the bottom. May you and your team be transformed along the way.
Now go forth and engage!
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