Tossing “Engagement” Upside Down

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal carried an article titled “Bad at their Jobs, And Loving It“.   It had a picture of a woman at her very clean desk at 8:00 in the morning, with her fluffy pink bedroom slippered feet on the desk, reading the newspaper.  Now right there, it grabs you.

Well, let me back up just a bit….Employee engagement is a corporate buzzword these days, measured by employee surveys, and often a factor in executive incentive plans.  One of the top surveying companies is Gallup, who offers a 12 question inquiry.  One of the controversial statements on the Gallup 12 is “I have a best friend at work“.  Gallup defends this statement through their research which says that those with a best friend at work are less likely to leave.

So the research is there, they say, but we all know that numbers can be interpreted to say what we want them to say.  In grad school, Research Methods told us in no uncertain terms that you cannot generalize the conclusions of the research unless the variables are identical to the research protocol.  But with human beings, that just isn’t possible – taking the number of people, and all of the variables that go along with their history, background, experience, mood, etc., generalization of research on people is flawed.

Now back to the WSJ article…their opening sentence is “A new study finds that, in 42% of companies, low performers actually report being more engaged – more motivated and more likely to enjoy working at their organization, for example – than middle and high performers do”.  Well, THAT could be a problem…..

What is cool about this research, conducted by LeadershipIQ, is that they “looked at data from 207 companies that kept detailed records of both performance evaluations and the engagement survey.”  Bravo to those companies for linking their survey to actual performance.    And of course, we know that you can’t generalize beyond the variables in the research protocol, right.

So this is not really an absolute.  It is a question that makes (or should make) us challenge the accepted, well-marketed buzz words that are aimed solely at selling us a product.

My first week in Educational Research Methods, I remember thinking to myself, holy smoke – if corporate America did as much research as education does, they would be paralyzed because there’s always one more thing to measure.   And I still think that….there is a point in time where you trust your instinct.

But trusting your instinct only works when you have sufficient knowledge, data and experience to have the instinct in the first place.  What is a bit alarming is how we have come to rely on the “research” of consultants and academics, without challenging the very premise of the construct, and often without having the knowledge, data and experience to have the alarm bells go off, saying “maybe I need to look at this a little more closely within the context of my own organization”.

If there is a gem of truth in the research about job performance not being a predictor of employee engagement, then perhaps the whole concept of “engagement” has been tossed upside down.

But I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing.  Do you?

2 thoughts on “Tossing “Engagement” Upside Down

  1. Hi Carol – great post. I agree with you that we need to look very closely at all of the ‘survey sources’ – whether Compensation surveys or global engagement surveys – to see if it really fits our own contexts. It’s amazing how often I read of people pulling from certain surveys that really have little to nothing to do with their industry or context (or the surveys themselves are lacking in rigor to produce truly credible data). In today’s “Big Data” day and age, we need to be more and more cognizant of what our boundaries are for good, credible data and – to your point – how to link that data back to the business. There is an art and a science of making sense of data, and I love the organization that actually linked their performance evaluations to their engagement surveys. Data in isolation can be interpreted to mean just about anything. I do think engagement has its merits – I don’t want to see the baby thrown out with the bathwater (I actually hate that saying yet it fits here…). Yet really stretching the notion of engagement, applying it to very real contexts within the organization and making sense of engagement in light of the business and people strategy, is where the gold will be.

  2. Hi Mercedes – yes, context is so important. It seems though that we are all so stretched for time that we hear the “compelling data” and really want the silver bullet. And your point about “big data” making it even more difficult to glean the right data, is excellent.

    You are right on that engagement is a critical indicator for organizations today – there is enough research (enhanced by our credible instincts) that an engaged employee is more committed and productive. Data, however, is a means, not an end.

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