We need to have a conversation about engagement

Karen Rayner

Numbers are easy*.

Anyone can take an employee survey and make something of it: response rate is obvious, unhappy and engaged answers easily coded. We can chart results and turn them into reports and pretty infographics with a bare minimum of effort. 77% of employees hate the food in the cafeteria! 31% of millennials in Townsville stay for the beanbags! Numbers, saving us from too much thinking since forever.

Unfortunately, numbers are also simple. Surveys in particular condense a whole heap of potentially mind-blowing information into a single, easily digestible figure.

Say I discover that only 31% of employees think they’re being treated fairly. OK, I know that’s not great, but what does it actually mean? I can see how everyone responded to the question ‘My contribution to the company is fairly recognised’ but beyond that, I just don’t know what’s going on with these guys. Was a co-worker promoted ahead of them? Did they find out a recent hire for a similar position is paid more? Did their boss get all the praise for the project they put a bunch of extra hours into? Are they just having a really bad day?

A few might elaborate in ALL CAPS, but most people who are mildly upset won’t bother explaining why. They’ll just go on being mildly upset because reasons. Good luck making that right!

Reducing employee engagement to a number is not ideal

Because surveys are simple (logistically unfun, but undeniably straightforward) they’re typically the go-to for measuring engagement and its antecedents in organisations. You fire off an email to your employees, get some responses, whip up a report and do it all again next year. There might be cake and a speech if your score goes up, but there’s often no further investigation into the responses, no digging around to discover the root cause of all this rampant mild-upset-over-perceived-unfairness.

Solving for mild upset

Luckily it’s relatively easy to find out why people really feel the way they do: just talk to them. Yes, even in organisations, where most employees are also people.

In my own experience, insight and change is more likely to come from conversations. They take more time and are more personal, but they create narratives that inspire. They get to the heart of the matter, instead of brushing over a topic and then promising to come back to it later. Eyes light up when people tell stories about their experiences; eyes can often glaze over when experiences are distilled into numbers. Leighton Abbot, Humankind

If an upset friend sends you an upset message, you’re going to ask them what happened. And ask if there’s anything you can do to make them less upset. There’ll be some back and forth over the general unfairness of life, possibly some colourful language. At the end of the exchange you’ll have a better understanding of where they’re coming from and how to help them, and they’ll feel 1) more understood 2) relieved of a burden and 3) slightly better.

Now apply that model at work.

Support conversations, don’t force them

Not everyone is going to want to talk. They might be busy, or introverted, or in a bad mood. Conversations about engagement and employee experience shouldn’t be a requirement (there’s no better way to shut some people up than telling them they have to talk) but you should support and encourage them. If managers have a good rapport with their teams, then encourage conversations about experiences, motivation and mood at that level. If workers want to escalate to senior management, then give them access to skip managers or heads of department. And there’s always HR…

Accounting for the logistically unfun

It may not be feasible to sit down for a heart to heart with every employee each time you run an engagement survey. But whether you interview a random sample of respondents or use a survey tool that enables more detailed responses, there are ways to make conversations happen.

And beyond surveys, encouraging people to talk about work is just good practice: employees waste an average of $1,500 and an 8-hour workday for every crucial conversation they avoid. Plus decent conversations just plain make us happier.

Conversations inside and outside the company are the chief mechanism for making change and renewal an ongoing part of the company’s culture. Alan M. Webber

Using conversations for good

You don’t have to type up transcripts or produce a conversation report (you’d be the only one reading it anyway).

What you will come out with is more insight into what makes your workplace tick than you would have achieved through numbers alone. Then you can decide what you follow up with employees directly, what headlines you share with the company, and what you use as a basis for improving EX going forward.

Try getting all that from a number.

* We’re not talking advanced calculus. I am mathematically challenged and even I can find my way around engagement survey data.


Originally published at www.exjournal.org on September 4, 2018.