Engagement, retention even activism…Traditional models of employee engagement are getting a bit tired. They are starting to look the same, smell the same, and feel the same.
There was a joke amongst Psychology students many years ago when they asked: ‘What’s intelligence?’ and the answer was: ‘Whatever is measured by tests of intelligence’. We are running the same risk: employee engagement is whatever numbers come from Employee Engagement surveys. It’s a growing industry. Executives of all sorts are asking their HR colleagues” Can we have one of these?” Or perhaps, ‘we must have one of these’.
Who could argue against having ‘some numbers’ that tells you how employees feel? Ah! The fascination with numbers! And what do you do with them? Ah!, you try to make sense, which is usually translated into lots of presentations to several layers of management. And then? Ah!, you must do something about it. Which is usually translated into more meetings about what to do. And then? Action plans. And then? Follow-up meetings? And then? Then, it will be time for another Employee Engagement Survey.
Believe me, I am far from cynical. I am describing an organizational ritual. And rituals have a key role in organizations. They tend to do good, glue and align people, make collective sense, provide maps, boost sense of belonging etc. They are not that good at solving problems, though. It’s better to have those numbers than not having a clue about the climate of the company. The serious question is what to do what those numbers other than ‘ try to boost them’.
I wrote an article many years ago: ‘Prisoners of the numbers’. Reading it now again I can see how frustrated I was seeing Boards managing Earnings per Share (EPS) and share prices, not the organization, not the people, not the purpose. Little has changed.
I very much welcome the sub-industry of Employee Engagement providing it’s not about number-management, the discussion of an up and down a scale, and the comparison with a neighbour. Many tools provide excellent, beautiful, sophisticated, expensive answers to the wrong questions. I have yet to know an organization that defines engagement first and then creates its survey. Most I know ‘use that survey’… Because they can. Time to rethink?