Measuring Engagement- Not an Easy Task

by Jody Ordioni

A favorite tool of the employers to measure employee engagement is a traditional survey. The hope that the analysis of such a survey would show them the way to improve employee productivity and reduce turnover. However, surveys are not always reliable as they fail to tell the employers anything of importance about the employees. Companies measure the motivation of employees while they conduct surveys. The general perception stands that more motivations lead to more productivity. Yet, it is not so and there are other factors that motivate employees to perform better. Changing those parameters though is insanely difficult.

Before parading engagement to employees, leaders need to understand the pitfalls of their surveys. The survey should clearly state what it aims to achieve and whether there are any alternatives to achieve the objectives. Surveys that gauge parameters such as workers’ pay, schedule, benefits, and behavior of superiors will be more successful than those that outright ask how satisfied they are in their jobs.

Where Do Engagement Surveys Come From?

The contemporary forms of surveys find their root in surveys conducted by the U.S. military during WW1. Called morale surveys, they were used to measure the willingness of the soldiers to fight. After the war many experts moved into private sectors; the origin of Personnel Research Foundation applied the psychological teachings of military surveys to private sector employees.

The 1930s was the period that saw the rise of such surveys. The form of surveys indicated that satisfied workers were productive and only in the 1980s was it understood that there was no correlation between the two. The focus was then laid on engagement to measure the productivity of the employees. This novel development brought to light the issue of employee burnout, which inferred that physical and emotional exhaustion affected work performance.

Why Engagement Becomes a Problem?

Engagement measures are hard to define because there are so many definitions floating around. It can be defined as pride, passion and enthusiasm for one’s work, according to some, it can be a willingness and ability to contribute to the company’s success, as per others. This becomes a problem when employers wish to measure engagement through one parameter, but the surveys ask questions pertaining to a different parameter.

Another factor that causes friction is the mistrust of employees in surveys, they believe that management would not pay heed to their responses. Our survey shows that 70% of the employees do not even bother filling the forms and 30% soundly believe that they are useless. If employees do not see concrete changes after the last survey, they will only become alienated and distrustful if HR keeps on piling new ones on them to fill out.

While most employers believe that surveys show engagement, which reflects how hard the employees are working, evidence points the other way. Employee engagement and productivity are not mutually exclusive, rather they are affected by various other factors, the calculation of which is not within the scope of a survey. For example, engagement is seen to be far greater in organizations that convey a clear social vision.

What to Do Instead?

Before distributing a survey, ask yourself what the end objective of this survey is- what do you want to know about the employees or office atmosphere. If your survey is based on job satisfaction/policies in the office/pay of the employees, then it is better to ask them directly. However, if you wish to measure their job performance, then the surveys should tackle the question from the perspective of the employees. It might be better to target these surveys at the supervisors as they have better grounds to comment on the job performance of the employees. Open-ended questions and meaningful conversations with employees and supervisors can help leaders gain a more nuanced understanding of the employee than recycled surveys with typical questions.

The Bottom Line

The limitations of the employees should be considered too. Engagement rates gradually increase through effective measures and then stabilize. Employees who are motivated, generally stay that way and those who are not usually don’t engage more, even with changed structures and policies.

While surveys are good indicators of employee engagement when carried out well, employees often find it difficult to self-diagnose. The leaders have to step up and become supportive of the workers. Improve the factors that hinder engagement, since your one job is to manage your employees well, every day.

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