Employee engagement hyperbole

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:

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 10.17.05

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.

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 09.34.26

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

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 09.48.44

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?

Engagement and Productivity

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?

Non Engagement and Productivity

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?

Disengagement and Productivity

(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?

Engegement by country

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. 

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16 Responses to Employee engagement hyperbole

  1. simonheath1 says:

    I’d be interested to see comparative stats for educational attainment. I suspect we’d see a slim layer of icing, a thick wodge of sponge and a thin soggy bottom.

  2. Gareth Jones says:

    Great post sir! And some great references to boot, as always! ITs a great resource for any HR pro out there thats trying to get to grips with this thorny area. As you have rightly uncovered, its a lot of hot air in many cases and the difference between the various studies that ultimately drive the public hysteria are eye opening. Thanks for doing the research!

  3. GrumpyLecturer says:

    Earlier last year I made a belated reply on this subject which I reproduce here on the subject of ’employee engagement’

    Pepper must be complemented for imaginatively linking the Marxist concept of ‘the division of labour’ with ‘employee engagement’. Unfortunately; Marx was not envisaging ‘employee engagement’ as a means by which workers would elicit a truce with their exploitative employers but workers would, through revolution, wrestle exploitative control away from employers. Marx’s Worker co-operatives do not correlate with engaged employees no matter how much you manipulate history to justify modern managerial exploitation techniques.

    Marx’s reference to the ‘division of labour’ was made in a climate when employers were attempting to wrest control of working methods and productivity from skilled workers. These same skilled workers one could argue were the original ‘engaged employees’. However, capitalism by its very controlling nature cannot have skilled, albeit engaged employees, controlling the speed of work. The breakthrough for employers was the adoption of F. W. Taylor’s Scientific Management Theory which when applied allowed employers to wrest control of production away from skilled workers by dividing skilled work into smaller unskilled operation thus not only devaluing labour but reducing work to meaningless and tedious tasks. The employer’s control over the labour process was as important in Marx’s day as it is today.

    Marx’s failing was to predict the eventual demise of capitalism as workers united to overthrow the tyranny of their masters through recognising and asserting their class consciousness. On this point Marx, to this point in time, has been proved incorrect.

    In the employer’s quest to keep control of the labour process a variety of tactics have been employed. Scientific Management has been enhanced by advances in technology which has further enabled employers to deskill and devalue work. Whereas Scientific Management was the weapon of choice against blue collar workers technology crosses the divide encompassing both blue and white collar workers. No occupation is exempt from deskilling and devaluing. This discourse is well documented, for those interested, by Harry Braverman in Labour and Monopoly Capitalism: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (1974).

    The newest managerial weapon in the fight for control over the labour process is Human Resource Management.

    Pepper and other supporters of ‘employee engagement’ are somewhat confused as to the meaning of the term. It is not fully understood ideologically but they do possess a tentative philosophical understanding of what they are trying to achieve but not the reason why they feel they must attain it apart from the ‘contented cow’ theorising. Adopting Pepper’s reference to Marxist writing let us turn to the ill begotten phrase ‘employee engagement’ through Marx’s historical determinism.

    In the beginning there was ‘employee participation’. Employee participation was firmly anchored in the collectivist tradition of industrial (employee) relations. Employees participated, through their elected representatives usually belonging to trade unions or staff associations, in negotiating their terms and conditions of work. Under this system employees, through their collective power, could have a say in wages, hours to be worked, holiday entitlement, pensions to name but some elements of the contract of employment. Employee participation is seen by some as a balancing of the power of the employer by the employee; some see it as a sop to employees giving them the illusion of equal power, some argued that employees had achieved greater power than their employers. This discourse is for another day.

    The next phrase to enter stage left was ‘employee involvement’. In the early 1980’s with employers looking for an alternate legitimating process through which they could regain more control of the labour process turned to the USA and Human Resource Management. The term ‘employee involvement’ encapsulated the Thatcher attack on ‘employee participation’. The aims of employee involvement were to appeal to individual employees to get more involved in their workplaces and to instil a consciousness that an individual worker was better than all others and that individuals should be rewarded for their effort and that wages should not be negotiated collectively but individually on merit. It was an attempt to piggy back Thatcherism on the shop floor by changing the mindset of employees from acting collectively to looking after themselves. This was a blatant ideological shift in perspective by the employers to control the labour process.

    For a number of years throughout the 1980’s these two terms ‘employee participation’ and ‘employee involvement’ formed an intense backdrop to any academic debate on industrial (employee) relations.

    Then in the late 1980’s early 1990’s a new kid hit the block whose name was ‘employee empowerment’. The subtlety of this term was that it removed from the academic discourse the previous two contested terms. One must imagine the backdrop to these changes. Up until the early 1980’s universities had industrial relations department inhabited by scholars who debated work and working practices in the context of tradition sociological theory. The introduction of Human Resource Management as an academic discipline due to the support it received from employers decimated university industrial relations faculties. Those academics who could not stomach teaching the crap entailed in Human Resource Management left others with families succumbed and learnt to play the game. A debate for another place and time.

    Back to the newly emerged term ‘employee empowerment’ and its effect on the labour process. Human Resource Managements introduction of the term employee empowerment, apart from being a much improved version of ‘employee involvement’, was seen as a master stroke by employers. The gathering momentum of individualising the employment relationship was well underway. Employee were moving towards the present day ‘me, myself and I’ mentality of the individual wants and desires far outweigh the rest of society’s wishes and wants.

    The deviousness of employee empowerment lay in its appeal to individual greed and Maslow’s theory of hierarchical needs. What employees want is work which is more meaningful, in which they have autonomy and in which they will be rewarded for their individual efforts. Employee empowerment was a way of enabling employees to manage themselves. If successful then why should organisations have huge layers of none productive managers if employees managed themselves. These layers could be dispensed with. What an ideological coup Human Resource Management had pulled off. The birth of ‘flatter management structures’ was under full steam. More empowered employees with greater responsibility, (feeling engaged inner rewards rather than material rewards)just as Maslow said, but with little or no increase in their pay levels whilst at the same time millions of managers thrown to the wolves and pay bills slashed overnight. Brilliant!

    Employee empowerment rules OK!

    However, for reasons known only to the Human Resource Management community a new term has emerged ‘employee engagement’. The definition of this term is fairly unstable at the moment which is causing some confusion in the ranks but no doubt this will be clarified in due course. So in the meanwhile make what you will of ‘employee engagement’

    I have tried, though somewhat clumsily at times, to place the terms in a Marxist historical determinist context but they all, apart from ‘employee participation’, have been used by the employer to gain ever greater control over the labour process. Having wrested that control away from employees many years ago through Taylor’s Scientific Management, the continued advances in technology and the newly arrived help in the guise of Human Resource Management ‘tool kit for employees’ employers’ have realised that total control of the labour process does not guarantee better production or loyal workers that the skilled and semi-skilled workers of the past exhibited.

    Employers are tragically trying to recreate a workplace atmosphere that they set about to destroy over the years. Under no circumstances will employers allow ‘employee participation’ to return. Their dilemma is they are not prepared to allow employees any power over the labour process and yet want employees to have limited control in the workplace which would satisfy their ‘psychological needs’ as defined by the content theorists. However, the employers heavy reliance on process theory, the measuring of all things measurable in the workplace, tends to nullify the effects of any content theories which they introduce.+

    Armed with a pocket full of theories managers appear to have forgotten how to manage.

  4. sdbast says:

    Reblogged this on sdbast.

  5. Dave Timoney says:

    I am reminded of Monty Python’s theory of the Brontausaurus: thin at one end, thick in the middle, and thin at the other end. Being so opaque and insubstantial, the measurement of “engagement” cannot but produce a normal distribution: [altogether now] thin at one end, thick in the middle …

  6. jayprich says:

    The ‘contribution to variance’ which regressions imply exaggerate the actual value of such feel-good factors. Self-reported motivation and cooperation in the workplace correlates just as much with having a cushy job as it does working extra hard and enjoying productivity. It is clearly possible to have great team cohesion within organisations that face existential problems. Productivity in terms of the ratio of financial performand to labour input probably benefits more from flexible happy workers than from very loyal happy workers .. unless the emotional attachment is so great you can pay them a lot less.

  7. Helen says:

    I understand a lot of the cynicism from the commentators (and I hear a lot more from others as well). Employee engagement when it’s the equivalent of a ‘well done’ certificate is meaningless, justifies the cynicism and actually is often counter-productive. But when employee engagement actually means a sense of ownership, then there is a noticeable difference in how people feel and behave.

    Making ownership real tends to be a radical step; more radical than most companies are prepared to go. The best way to make employees feel like they own the business is to ensure they actually own the business – employee ownership schemes, profit-share, democratic decision-making, full transparency …. these are related techniques which, when implemented together, tend to mean real employee engagement.

    At the risk of sounding like one of the people selling something, this is a topic we’re discussing in detail at http://www.sparkthechange.co.uk. I work for an employee-owned company (that is, I am a part owner) and while we’re still busy creating the data that will show whether it makes us more successful or not, I can promise you that the emotional engagement is real.

  8. fourgroups says:

    Great post, not least because the Gallup fluctuations are all within a margin of error! When you consider the time frame, sample size and budgets, it prompts many more questions about what’s really going on and if engagement can be improved in a consistent and sustainable manner across multiple businesses and industries.

    That aside, people are unlikely to be too critical of engagement in principle and so the use of the term persists…

  9. Robert says:

    Prof Chris Ham of the Kings Fund is due to deliver report on workforce engagement for the Department of Health. It will be interesting to see how he defines engagement and if he can prove higher staff engagement equals better care for patients.

  10. I totally agree and have done a lot of research on this – the entire engagement industry is ready to be disrupted. I’ve been coming up with a new model we call “The Simply Irresistible Organization” and it goes far beyond these measures. The problem with Kenexa/Gallup/et al is that they “defined” engagement in a very limiting way and the world has changed. There are many other factors beyond what they measure, which is why the statistics dont seem to change and don’t correlate to business outcomes well.


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  12. Gallup’s meta-research finds a strong correlation between engagement and profitability:

    Click to access 2012-Q12-Meta-Analysis-Research-Paper.pdf

    “The relationship between engagement and performance
    at the business/work unit level is substantial and highly
    generalizable across organizations.”

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  15. vistor says:

    Employee engagement is another gimmick coming out of the US. I mean, why the heck would need a survey to know how employees feel at bout work. I would think that is one of the basic things a supervisor must know. In turn the supervisor´s boss should also know how the supervisor feels and on and on.

    The US “school” of management has gone down at the speed of sound. Instead of taking the time to mix with the workers avery day and going to see what is really happen they prefer to pay Gallup to give them a few numbers and some psychobullexcrement. In this way the manager can know what is going on by looking at the conmputer screen instead of known how the people outside his office door think and feel.

    It seen in the US have invented “virtual management”. Soon they will speak of virtual profits as US companies keep falling in profitability for tha las 30 years. But I would not expect anything else form managers “trained” at Harvard etc., where the connection to reality is talk about cases. Imagine training a surgeon by talking about surgery!

    The US reminds me of pre Hitler Germany, full of “superbright” types but totally incompeyent about running anything for any length of time. Seems the US has fallen into teh hands of similar types; lots of hyperbrigh writers, scientists, lawyers and politicians but the country in a predivtable dive… until, like in germany all hell breaks lose. Every day the US is closer to midnight.

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