May 13, 2019
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 workgroup, which is in turn influenced by the effectiveness of the work group manager, then for engagement to improve change needs to occur at the workgroup 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 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 workgroup.
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 workgroup got feedback that their communications needed improvement they might create a plan such as:
If communications were terrible these actions would probably improve them. However, what if the workgroup 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:
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 computations are as follows:
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.
—Dr. Joe Folkman
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