The Employee Engagement Myth

As I’ve been working on Friday Feedback the last couple years, I’ve read dozens of books and research on the concept of employee engagement. One of my career goals is to build software products that make work just a little bit better, which drew me to the research on this topic in the first place.

From what I can tell, the term “employee engagement” was popularized by Gallup over a decade ago. They define it as “those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.”

Look at how engaged we are at work!

I operate from the belief that there will never be a perfect workplace; even great places to work have issues that need to be dealt with. With that being said, I believe that leaders should actively work to create an environment where people are performing at a high level (and feel good about it too).

I’ve been mentally writing this post for a long time, but after seeing the recent Glint acquisition by LinkedIn for $400 million, I think it’s time I started writing about it a bit.

Before I jump into my points, I’ll say that there are great people in the employee engagement space, who want to make life/work better for employees, but I believe the system is flawed….and is actually hurting more than it’s helping.

Everyone defines employee engagement differently

First up on the list, many vendors/surveys express employee engagement in a single number, but no one can even define employee engagement — everyone has a different definition (this is largely driven by software vendors with products to sell). It’s a squishy metric that is not tied to the balance sheet.

Employee engagement is defined as:

“the harnessing of organization members’ selves to their work roles; in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performances.

oh wait, maybe it’s this one:

“translating employee potential into employee performance and business success”

or this one:

“a process by which an organization increases commitment and continuation of its employees to the achievement of superior results.”

Do you get my point? Everyone has a different definition. As a result, benchmarking across vendors/companies is next to impossible. This is why the industry recommends benchmarking against past results (which to be fair, I agree with). Put simply, there’s no such thing as GAAP in the world of employee engagement.

This is not a huge deal, but let’s move onto my next point

Employee engagement leads to performance?

Gallup and others in the employee engagement space say that higher levels of engaged employees move the needle on company performance, increasing revenue/profit/etc.

This argument is used to justify an investment in a survey administered by HR once per year. The reasoning follows something like this:

  • you should measure how engaged your company is.
  • You should take steps to improve based on the results you gather (which frequently never happens, but that’s another point)
  • Improving this number leads to higher levels of productivity, which yields higher revenue/profit.

Ever heard the statement, “correlation does not imply causation?” We have a textbook example of this right in front of our eyes.

It doesn’t pass the straight-face test

The idea that engagement drives performance is backward logic that doesn’t make a bit of sense.

Let’s use a sports analogy to illustrate my point:

Let’s say the Boston Celtics are one of the worst teams in the NBA. They rarely win a game, but wow, the team seems really happy to show up and collect their fat paychecks after every game. Heck, maybe they are engaged at work — they try really hard, but despite the fact that they lose every single game, at least they are engaged.

Any basketball player worth their salt would not be engaged at work in this scenario. The team is losing all their games!

“Engagement” is a lagging indicator of performance, not the other way around.

For example, watch this video of the Golden State Warriors, a team who has consistently has one of the best records in the NBA year after year:

Based on this video, does it seem like that team is “engaged?” As Gallup might say, are the Golden State Warriors involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace?

The team looks really involved and happy…because they are performing at a high level.

I can’t stress this enough — when you perform at a high-level, you feel good about it. When you don’t perform and do your best work, you don’t feel good about it.

Vendor-driven ecosystem with no skin in the game

For over a decade, Gallup has measured engagement on an almost daily basis and the number has barely budged over the last decade. The number tends to stay in the low 30% range — this strategy is a PR dream. Year after year, Gallup can state that “the majority of the workforce is disengaged.” They then proceed to sell products/services to improve the score. It’s the gift that keeps on giving!

If you think about it, it’s a genius business model. Create never-ending demand for high-margin products by ensuring a consistently low score.

Gallup isn’t the only culprit here. I challenge you to find a vendor in this space who puts some skin in the game, charging by results delivered to the income statement. Vendors have an incentive to ensure that engagement scores stay low, otherwise, they don’t have a product to sell.

My biggest issue with the employee engagement industry

I really want to like this industry, but I’m finding it difficult the more I dig in. The market is driven by mediocre tools that are underwhelming and built for HR, which historically have very little influence throughout the organization.

Nowadays, we have “people operations”, which is a fancy term for HR, but very little has changed.

For example, billions of dollars are spent on Employee Engagement initiatives, with the majority of them being survey tools like Glint. Over the past few years, the trend has been to replace the annual survey, with a more frequent survey that happens on a quarterly/monthly basis.

Is this the most innovative thing we can think of? A more frequent, anonymous survey administered by a department that is also responsible for payroll and making sure the business doesn’t get sued?

Even the notion of an anonymous survey is sad. “Please be transparent about what’s going on through this anonymous survey.”

While measuring on a more frequent interval is a helpful start, the act of measuring doesn’t lead to improvement. It’s like if I step on a scale and expect to lose weight. Only if I combine the measurement with action can change be made.

Missing the bigger picture

To wrap up, I’m extremely skeptical of the employee engagement industry. The current systems at play are preventing real, lasting improvements that need to be made to improve the employee experience.

We can make work better, but it’s not going to happen by measuring a vague metric like “engagement.” We need to focus on figuring out how to get people to operate and deliver their best work, because if they do that, the satisfaction will follow.

In a future post, I’ll write about how organizations should think about improving performance.

Update: I’m getting quite a bit of interest, so here’s my follow-up post on how teams/leaders can think about improving performance + happiness.