It’s been a while since I wrote about employee engagement but recent posts from Gemma and Mervyn prompted me to have another go. When I looked, I remembered why I have avoided it for so long. It’s very hard to find any information about employee engagement that isn’t written by people trying to sell you stuff about employee engagement.
Articles on employee engagement come thick and fast these days, usually with some kind of apocalyptic warning. It’s getting worse, said this New York Times piece last week, with the suggestion that American companies are turning into ‘White Collar Salt-Mines’. Germany has a serious management problem, warned Gallup, as it reported that only 15 percent of German workers are engaged and that this number has barely shifted since 2001. Engage for Success reckons that Britain’s worsening productivity gap is due, in no small part, to poor engagement levels.
At this point, I started to have doubts. According to the most recent Gallup survey, Germany’s engagement score is below that of the UK, yet we know the German economy is more productive than ours and has been for some time. In fact, most of the countries the ONS identified as being more productive than the UK had lower engagement scores. So I decided to do some digging.
Given that Gallup is one of the longest-running and most often quoted engagement surveys, that looked like a good place to start.
Gallup defines three categories of engagement:
Based on that, let’s look at some of the claims.
Firstly, is engagement getting worse?
Not according to the most recent Gallup survey of the American workplace.
If anything, it has improved slightly in recent years, though not by much.
I couldn’t find a similar timeline for the UK but the figures in the most recent Gallup report don’t seem to have moved much from those in 2001. A bit of migration into the Actively Disengaged camp but no change in positive engagement.
Gallup Employee Engagement Scores, UK, 2001 and 2012
A dot com boom came and went, then another boom and an almighty crash, but the employee engagement figures barely moved, here or in the US. Whatever the economic storms, the ship of employee engagement seemed unaffected. After a decade of employee surveys, engagement programmes, books, articles and seminars at management conferences, not much changed.
What about productivity then?
The OECD has recently published productivity data for 2012, the same year as the last Gallup survey. What happens if we compare engagement levels to productivity in different countries?
There is a relationship but a very weak one. Surely, if employee engagement makes so much difference to organisations it would be stronger than that.
What happens if we compare productivity and non-engagement?
Oh dear, that’s awkward. Another weak relationship but one that’s stronger than for engagement. Having a large number of people in the middle seems to do more for productivity than a large number at the top.
What about productivity and disengagement?
(Sources for all 3 charts: Engagement data, Gallup, Productivity data, OECD Factbook.)
This is the strongest relationship of the three. Lots of actively disengaged people correlates with lower productivity.
Of course, any number of things can influence a country’s productivity rate and both productivity and employee engagement are likely to be influenced by other variables. If there is a cause and effect relationship between the two, though, it looks as though there is more to be gained from getting people from Disengaged to Non Engaged than from Non Engaged to Engaged. Just having more people who are content to come in and do a good job might be better than trying to increase the number of fully engaged evangelists.
I also wonder, given the similarity of scores over time for different countries, whether we are simply talking about reflections of national culture here. Gallup’s global data consistently show the US as having the highest level of employee engagement. Could it be that the cultural assumptions behind it get lost somewhere in the translation?
The other problem with all this is that it’s not at all clear what we are talking about because people have different definitions of engagement and ways of measuring it. For example, according to Kenexa’s surveys, India has topped the global employee engagement league table three years in a row. In the Gallup survey, though, its scores are among the worst. Clearly the surveys are measuring something different.
Depending on which reports you read, employee engagement is something to do with passion, emotional attachment, discretionary effort, enthusiasm and going the extra mile. Beyond that it’s not really clear. There is a great quote from David Guest in this Engage for Success report:
Early on in the review, when we spoke to David Guest, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Human Resource Management at Kings College London, he pointed out that much of the discussion of engagement tends to get muddled as to whether it is an attitude, a behaviour or an outcome or, indeed, all three. He went on to suggest that “… the concept of employee engagement needs to be more clearly defined [...] or it needs to be abandoned”.4 We have decided, however, that there is too much momentum and indeed excellent work being done under the banner of employee engagement to abandon the term.
In other words, we don’t really know what it is but we are going to carry on doing it anyway.
The enthusiasts will point to any number of case studies that show the improvements in company results arising from employee engagement programmes. I wonder, though, how much of this is due simply to the fact that paying more attention to staff sometimes improves their performance.
As the Engage for success report says, a lot of good work is going on but is that work making people more emotionally engaged with their organisations or does the process simply improve the quality of management, thereby improving results? The cheerleaders for employee engagement are often very disparaging about the non-engaged mass of people in the middle. Just look at the Gallup definitions above. But we know, and here there is some strong evidence, that just doing the boring stuff well improves organisations’ performance. Perhaps what happens in employee engagement programmes is that the standard of management improves, not necessarily making more people emotionally reneged and willing to go the extra mile, but simply making working life better for everyone.
I also wonder about the employee engagement programmes that fail to improve company performance or that actually make it worse. As ever, the failure to study failure may skew the results.
This article (See P.117 here) by Beverley Little sheds some light on the problem:
If engagement behaves like well-established constructs such as job satisfaction, organizational commitment or job involvement and results in the same outcomes, does the field need a construct such as engagement?
The question the authors wish to raise is whether employee engagement is a meaningful idea that adds to management knowledge or if it is a concept that is redundant with existing research. Its popularity is most likely due to the wish of most practicing managers for the “answer” to the sticky problems of motivation and performance.
The latest in a long line of quick fixes, perhaps?
As ever, I’d be interested to hear from someone who has looked into this in any depth. The international comparisons, though, don’t give much supporting evidence for the claims about engagement and productivity. Some interventions might have improved some aspects of performance for some companies. But extrapolating this to say that employee engagement will close Britain’s productivity gap, or that the lack of it is some kind of crisis, is pure hyperbole. We don’t really know what employee engagement is and the surveys don’t suggest much of a link between engagement and economic performance. The grandiose claims made for it really don’t stand up to much scrutiny.