The trouble with employee engagement

27 Feb
Employee Engagement

The trouble with employee engagement

It is a familiar scene. The Head of HR is presenting engagement results to the Board and the numbers look pretty good. 65% of the workforce are ‘engaged’, 20% are neutral and 15% are ‘disengaged’. Like every good HR Professional, she has done her homework and pre-empted the questions. How does this compare with external benchmarks? Isn’t the 35% of neutrals and negatives a bad sign? How can we move these numbers further upward?

The answers are batted back with ease.

65% positive engagement is a great sign and places us in the top quartile for our industry…..You will never get the bottom 20%, that’s just human nature…..We are adjusting our recruitment program to ensure we hire people whose personal values are in alignment with the company values…..etc

Everybody around the table pauses for hearty congratulations. Thanks, we’ll see you next year!

The trouble with this scene, so often repeated, is that it is a complete nonsense! Typically there are questions which should get asked at a time like this, but never do. Every company has sacred cows and they are alive and well when it comes to employee engagement.

Why don’t we ask “If employee engagement is so high, why are this quarter’s results so poor?” “If employee engagement is so great, how come people are so miserable out on the floor?” “The engagement score is interesting, but what are they engaged with?”

Employee engagement as an isolated indicator, tells you next to nothing about the motivation and connectedness of the employees to the company mission or how well they deliver value to your customers.

In fact, high engagement scores, in the absence of a holistic approach to leadership, culture, performance management and organisational learning are likely to be a red flag. Poor performers, who are not closely managed and who have a loose connection to the mission of the company and the needs of their customers are likely to report as being highly engaged. They report for work each day and leave their brains at the door. What further disguises the problem in these environments, is that the voluntary turnover rate is usually low. Why would I leave? Poor performers tend to expand to fill the space that they are allowed. If you are one of them, the workplace experience is comfortable. Admittedly, there is a fair amount of avoidance and conformance behaviour and plenty of petty bitching about Con and Emily, who never pull their weight. But otherwise people get left alone and find their level of mediocrity.

When the annual staff survey comes around, people are not trying to pull the wool over the eyes of management. They are telling their version of the truth. Typically, they are left to come up with their own definition of ‘engagement’ and in the moment tend to respond positively. In the Australian context, employees also admit ‘off the record’ that they intuitively know that nothing good comes from complaining in the annual survey.

A worthwhile engagement survey sets the context and builds to a series of questions that are quite specific to the individual experience.   For example, here is the company mission, here are the strategic goals, this is the operational plan and here are the performance and behavioural expectations we have of you. Now, on a range of factors, how are we performing as a company and how strongly connected are you to each of the factors. Finally, an opportunity to feed back what is not working at a granular level, can deliver gold nuggets.

Boards love getting results that are distilled to a single number. That way they can track trends over time and stay above the detail. Employee engagement is not a number, but an ongoing conversation. Setting a clear context and asking the right questions can provide the basis for leadership and culture work for the next year but demands a grown up approach to human resource management.

If you want to explore this further, contact me at