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Employee Engagement: Do we know what we are after and what we are really measuring?

By Kee Meng Yeo, Vice President, Global Talent Development, Amway

Kee Meng Yeo, Vice President, Global Talent Development, AmwayKee Meng Yeo, Vice President, Global Talent Development, Amway

While I often hear at conferences self-deprecating perceptions that HR practitioners are by and large clueless about the businesses that they support, and as a result put in place processes and programs that hinder rather than help the business, I have yet to meet a HR practitioner that have put in place or maintain programs in their organizations “just because they like them”, the success of the business be damned. On the contrary, just about every HR practitioner I’ve met are well-meaning people who do their best to help their organizations succeed. However, many are also trusting individuals who will accept well-articulated opinions of vendors and other practitioners as if they are thoroughly researched truth. An example of this is the almost faith-based acceptance of the concept of Employee Engagement.

Employee Engagement is a thing we take for granted is good for the organization. After all, it feels right and conforms to conventional wisdom that the more engaged the employees, the better it is for the organization. It’s not that engagement as a concept is necessarily bad, even though the evidence is often hindsight correlations, not to mention selective data mining - when do we even hear or read about examinations of companies that had great engagement and leading-edge HR practices that no longer exist, granted, for a variety of market reasons.

The main issue here is the question of whether we know what we mean when we throw around the term, “employee engagement”. There are a myriad of articles that try to define the term variously as employee morale, commitment to the company (all the time, most of the time, some of the time?), employee happiness (sometimes related back to morale or sometimes referred to as satisfaction, but with what…), employees that believe what you want them to believe (yes, it’s been defined this way), employees that are willing to put in more time, employees that are not thinking of leaving, strength of mental and/or emotional connection (to the company, their boss, their co-workers?), etc. One scholarly review titled “The Meaning of Employee Engagement” (Macey & Schneider, 2008 – yes, 2008!!!) took 28 pages to accomplish the intention of the article but also criticizes academics and practitioners for use of ambiguous terms.

"Has anyone besides the vendor themselves tried to proof their hypothesis wrong? Be very wary of vendors whose hypothesis is unfalsifiable"

Holding some or even all these definitions in mind, consultants and management gurus lament that “engagement” in the workplace is at an all-time low and we all immediately jump to the conclusion that this declaration (and it is often times just a declaration) necessarily spells doom for corporations and companies need to measure themselves and do something about it. Again, I’m not suggesting that we don’t measure or do anything about engagement, but…

Instead, what I’m suggesting is that first and foremost, each of us need to clarify for ourselves what is the problem we are trying to solve i.e. decide what definition you want to attach to “employee engagement”. Even then, does this definition of the term make any difference to organizational performance and if so, how much i.e. is the problem worth solving. Only when you have determined this, should you go forth to measure where you are relative to, where you want to be.

If as you go forth, and need to seek external help, it will be useful (if improbable) to consider a few points from Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit”:

• Are there independent confirmations of the vendors claims and declarations (white papers, which are opinion pieces published by vendor do not count)?

• Is the vendor arguing from “authority”? I always cringe when I hear the phrase “Research shows…” Whose research or as the character from the original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation; Gil Grissom likes to say; “Cite your source.”A tangent – next time when you are at a conference and the speaker declares; “research shows…”, at the Q&A, ask for the source of the research and if the speaker doesn’t squirm, you will find their “research” is more often than not from a white paper opinion piece or results of a poll rather than actual research.

• If the vendor makes a chain of arguments, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) – not just most of them.

• This one is really really difficult - Has anyone besides the vendor themselves tried to proof their hypothesis wrong? Be very wary of vendors whose hypothesis is unfalsifiable.

I realize these are often high if not impossible huddles for HR practices vendors to cross but I’m urging that we be at least somewhat skeptical about claims made in our area of practice, without being cynical. If you are going to seek help to solve the problem of whatever your definition of employee engagement may be, at least work with vendors that do work based on proper social science vs because it feels intuitively right.

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