The vast majority of organizations now conduct employee surveys in some form or another and there is no doubt that their use has, for the most part, served organizations reasonably well. However we need to guard against falling into the ‘familiarity trap’, blindly accepting what surveys (and survey providers) are telling us and believing this to be the ultimate ‘truth’.  The reality is that traditional surveys only go so far and recent advances in the fields of neuroscience and behavioral psychology have shown systemic limitations in the approaches adopted by most organizations.

Typical approaches are fundamentally ‘Taylorist’ and whilst appropriate for stable, ordered and predictable environments are insufficiently nuanced to provide the insights which will drive the levels of engagement required for success in the complex and fluid environments that most organizations are facing. Indeed, in extreme cases, reliance on existing approaches may actually prevent organizations from improving engagement by engendering a false sense of security and comfort. If organizations are to take the next step on the engagement journey they need to better understand the ‘emotional’ aspects of engagement and recognize the limitations of approaching it from a predominantly ‘cognitive’ perspective. Specifically they need to consider that:

  1. Engagement is a complex set of psychological and emotional relationships between an individual and their work environment: we therefore need to measure these interactions and relationships in order to understand the psychological factors that drive the brain states and arousal levels necessary for high engagement; traditional ‘engagement measures’ fail to provide the required insights.
  2. Engagement is not a single state but a spectrum which ranges from highly engaged at one end to disaffected at the other extreme: we therefore need to assess where people are on this spectrum in order to really appreciate the true state of engagement within an organization. For example, an organization with 60% engagement and 40% disaffection is likely to be less productive than one with 40% engagement and 60% satisfaction despite the ‘headline figure’ indicating the opposite!
  3. Engagement changes over time and is sensitive to small changes in the work environment: we therefore need to measure the proportion of time that employees spend in different ‘engagement’ states rather than the percentage of employees who are allegedly engaged or otherwise; trying to infer the proportion of the workforce who are ‘engaged’ can often create a very misleading picture and fail to identify the circumstance whereby even highly motivated and committed employees become emotionally detached.
  4. People can be engaged with different aspects of their work environment and the drivers of engagement vary accordingly: we therefore need to understand what people are primarily engaged with (job, mission, colleagues, customers etc) and what matters most to them. Understanding the different ‘loci of engagement’ helps us to understand what energizes people and provides intrinsic motivation, and hence where we need to focus attention.  
  5. Future expectations can influence an individual’s state of engagement: most surveys focus on the here and now but we need to understand how people view the future and how this impacts on their current engagement state; uncertainty about the future can have a powerful effect on our brains and hence on engagement in the present. 
  6. Conversations and relationships lie at the heart of an engaging environment, not processes and systems: we therefore need to pay more attention to the interpersonal interactions that take place within an organization and focus less on formal processes, structures and systems ie we need to understand the ‘conversational landscape’ that exists.
  7. Managers are critical to the creation of an engaging work environment: this fact is well established but we need to put managers at the heart of the survey / measurement process and enable and empower them to ‘own’ the process and outcomes; all too often managers become involved late in the day and as a consequence see engagement as ‘someone else’s problem’ and fail to accept accountability for their role in the creation of an engaging work environment.
  8. Engagement does not equate to performance: this might appear to be a rather contentious assertion but the truth is that, whilst engagement is a prerequisite of sustained performance, on its own it is not sufficient. There is a need to channel engagement and align with the organization’s mission, purpose and operational priorities and to this end there is a pressing need to ensure that engagement principles and practices permeate an organization’s approach to performance management and appraisals and make them engaging experiences.

And finally: The process of measuring engagement itself needs to be engaging; diagnostics have a major role to play (if well designed) but greater emphasis needs to be placed on embedding a management led, ‘dialogue centered’ approach to engagement which is predominantly ‘relationship’  as opposed to ‘process’ orientated.  

Doug Crawford is the Managing Director of Cerus Consulting