Watch a brief preview of The Extraordinary Leader to evaluate the content taught in our one-day workshop! WATCH NOW


Measuring Engagement Does Not Improve Itby Zenger Folkman March 15, 2018

Many organizations that conduct employee engagement surveys believe that measuring engagement is the only necessary step to improving it as well. However, after a few years of administering the survey many organizations find their engagement scores stalling or declining rather than improving. In many ways, measuring engagement creates an expectation that it will be significantly improved. I believe there are two fundamental issues that hamper most improvement efforts.

Issue 1 – The Source of Poor Engagement

Zenger Folkman research has shown that the largest factor impacting engagement is the effectiveness of employees’ immediate supervisor. When describing this research to groups, I often ask participants if they have ever worked for a very poor leader in the past. I add the “in the past” qualification in case their immediate supervisor is in the audience. Most hands go up. I then ask, “What was it like working for a very poor leader?” The responses are very predictable, with comments like, “frustrating,” “I hated coming to work,” “I was discouraged,” and “I was miserable.”

If you work for a poor leader you will be an unengaged employee. The graph below shows results from over 11,000 work groups within the same organization. Employees rated both the effectiveness of their immediate manager and their level of engagement. As you can see, the group with the poorest rated managers coincided with very low levels of engagement. For every increase in the manager’s effectiveness we could measure an increase in the level of engagement.

 If the major source of low engagement is the environment in a work group, which is in turn influenced by the effectiveness of the work group manager, then for engagement to improve change needs to occur at the work group level. Many organizations try to oversimplify this process, believing that if they make a few broad global changes that engagement will increase. This approach misses the major source of the discontent.In another study with this same organization, we found that if a newly hired, highly engaged employee came into a group where engagement was low, within 18 months their engagement level matched the average engagement of the employees in that work group.

Issue 2 – How to Create Real Change in Engagement

Most organizations have a simplified view of how they can improve engagement and resolve issues that are raised in the survey. If something needs improvement, then just do it more! For example, if a work group got feedback that their communications needed improvement they might create a plan such as:

  • Schedule weekly communication meetings
  • Send emails to each employee weekly
  • Create a newsletter every month

If communications were terrible these actions would probably improve them. However, what if the work group was already doing those things to communicate? For many leaders the logic of what they would need to do to continue to improve would be to continue doing the same things, but more frequently. Their plan might be:

  • Schedule daily communication meetings
  • Send emails to each employee every day
  • Create a newsletter every week

More is not always better—sometimes it’s just more. To gain insight into what actions might improve communication, we researched thousands of 360-degree assessments from hundreds of different organizations. We identified groups where communications were rated highly, compared them to groups where communications were a problem, and then identified additional factors that influenced the rating of each employee on communications. We found a set of what we called enabling factors that impacted communications. By improving a few of these enabling dimensions we found that communications could be significantly improved. Some of the enabling dimensions associated with commutations are as follows:

  • Trust and competence of a leader. If a leader is trusted and respected, their communications are perceived to be more effective by their employees. Think about information you receive from a leader you do not trust. It does not matter how effectively this leader delivers the message. If there is a lack of trust, its effectiveness will be negatively impacted.
  • Create a more positive work environment. Communications are rated higher when the person works in a team with a positive work environment and people are highly engaged. In a negative work environment, it is easy for people to interpret communications in the wrong way.
  • Clear strategy and direction. In an organization where there is confusion about the strategy and direction, it’s difficult for any communication to be clear. Everyone is lost and lacks general direction. When the strategy and direction are clear to everyone, communications become clear.
  • Questionable integrity. Clear communications are often based on team members’ beliefs that promises and commitments will be met and expectations will be realized. When integrity is questioned, no amount of talking or messaging will make up the difference.
  • Ability to change. At the heart of many of our communications is that message that we need to go in a different direction or make a needed change. In an organization where employees lack confidence that change is possible, team members start to question communications describing needed changes. Building the confidence of employees that change efforts will be successful can make a significant difference in how people perceive communications.

Albert Einstein said that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Often the solution to many of our problems is not to do the same thing more frequently, but to understand what other factors influence the problem. Sometimes the best solution is to change some of the enabling factors.

This article was first published on


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.

jQuery(function() { var icons = { header: "ui-icon-plusthick", activeHeader: "ui-icon-minusthick" }; jQuery( "#accordion" ).accordion({ collapsible: true, active: -1, heightStyle: "content", event: "click", icons: icons, }); });