Focussing on the causes not the symptoms of employee engagement

Focussing on the causes not the symptoms of employee engagement-01.png

Depending on which data you look at employee engagement has tended to be flat or declining over the last 15 years. There is obviously something wrong with the way that firms have been attempting to manage engagement within their organizations. Our view is that the core issue is that engagement typically suffers flawed analysis leading to ineffective changes.

A simple way of thinking about the way most traditional surveys are designed is by considering the questions in two groups: a set of questions that make up the engagement index and another set, usually larger, which is used to identify factors that are correlated to that engagement index.

If we consider how this works in more detail we can see that what we’re doing is looking at the differences in views between engaged and disengaged employees.

Most engagement survey analysis is static – i.e. no knowledge of each respondents’ previous states or answers are considered when conducting the analysis. Where history is included it is usually at the sub-organization (eg team, department) level where there can significant differences in the underlying respondents from survey to survey.

During the analysis stage of a survey typically variables that are most closely linked with engaged / disengaged employees are identified. Unhelpfully these are often called ‘drivers’ implying, at least to the lay-person, that they are causal. They are not, they’re simply correlations.

What these analyses do is identify symptoms of being engaged rather than what causes the employee to become engaged in the first place.

There are several reasons this matters. The first and most obvious is that any post-survey action is likely to be sub-optimal. I can take a flu-remedy which prevents my nose running and tempers my headache but I still have the flu. As soon as the medicine wears off the headache returns.

The second reasons is that our sensitivity to certain issues changes as a result of our overall view. We probably all know people who cited reasons such as ‘they left the toothpaste lid off’ when explaining why they changed partners. When love disappears these things become more grating, but overall they aren’t the reasons why love is lost.

How to fix this

To understand the issues that are linked to employees moving from an engaged to a disengaged state (or vice versa) we need to include how any individual changes over time in our model.

There are two key ways of doing this. My view is that the ‘gold standard’ is to do both:

  • We can look at the transition between engaged & disengaged at an individual-level and understand what happened to them. One way of doing this is to link employee background (education level, function, tenure etc.) and event data (eg pay rises, job changes, performance reviews) and build models which identify which combinations are linked to changing individual-level engagement. We can look at which responses change and explore whether there were underlying reasons why this might have occurred.
  • We can ask people if they feel more / less engaged (or even identify it from their history) and if they feel a change what events, experiences or factors have influenced their changes in feeling.

What we learn

When analysing data in this way we see significantly different issues that are cited as reasons for a change in engagement (or recommendation when using eNPS).

Our employee feedback tool, Workometry, uses open questions instead of traditional scale questions. It then uses highly sophisticated text analytics approaches to summarise the statement and group them into meaningful groups (with meaningful descriptions such as ‘More clarity on the future direction’). The summaries and groups the algorithms find will depend on the answers to the question asked (and often be organization-specific).

Many of the reasons cited for changes in engagement would not be part of a typical engagement survey, meaning that there is no way they’d be able to identify them, and by implication that you wouldn’t be able to act upon them.

Reasons may seem at first glance far more personal but there are a few key themes that we typically find:

  • Environmental issues are often the largest group. These will include the team dynamics, toxic colleagues and ineffective management. I’d suggest that the single most effective way of improving a disengaged employee’s engagement level is changing their role
  • Barriers to getting the job done is a significant issue, especially amongst high performers
  • Measurement and incentive related issues are common. These could include targeting at the general level or where targets are badly aligned to things that are important to employees values, such as delivering great customer experiences.
  • Various events that could all be categorised in a general ‘Employee Experience’ group can have significant changes. For individuals where we see sharp drops in engagement over two, close time periods there is usually an event which has caused the change.
  • New senior leadership and refocussed strategies can increase engagement for certain groups.

Changes to action planning

Given the reasons we see most of the action that is likely to be effective would be bottom-up rather than the typical long, top-down approach. There will be some systematic issues that will need to be addressed but in general a principle of ‘decisions / action should be made at the lowest possible level’ is probably correct.

For organizations which really want to get this right will be building teams to address more structural issues. I’d imagine such teams would have experience in areas such as process and job design, technology enablement and incentives. Such changes would need to be formally costed / valued and prioritised.

As an extension of this organizations need to have a serious debate about how to ‘close the loop’ with employee issues in a timely manner. Whilst customer feedback can trigger this easily, in organizations employee feedback is usually provided with a promise of confidentially. Technology offers opportunities here.

‘Low hanging issues’ need to be fixed quickly. We always see issues such as staff facilities that are broken or policies, designed for one situation which are inappropriate in another area. Fixing these things quickly will likely not address fundamental reasons (they’re the toothpaste-lid sort of reasons mentioned above) but rapidly taking action sends a signal to employees that feedback is being listened to and providing it is worthwhile.

Overall we believe that much of the failure to improve engagement in organizations is due to using static analysis to understand dynamic systems issues. Businesses address the causes rather than the symptoms will realise significant benefits.