Five frightening facts about employee engagement

Written by
Changeboard Team

05 Feb 2015

05 Feb 2015 • by Changeboard Team

Engagement is still just too HR

It’s hard to deny that engaged employees are a key competitive differentiator. Creating deeper connections across employees, with organisations and with the wider world are important for business success. That’s why the first EdelmanENGAGE study (in collaboration with Melcrum) wanted to explore what HR and internal communications are actually doing to convert engagement into competitive advantage. What’s working and what isn’t? And how can we improve things for the future?

The full report on our research is due out in March of this year, but here are five blunt (and we think scary) facts from the headline findings.

We asked what people were defining as engagement in their organisation and what were they measuring as a result. The data shows one simple thing: the vast majority of employee engagement surveys rely on an out-dated, old-fashioned, pure-play HR “version” of engagement:

Almost 50% of all organisations fail to include issues of employees’ engagement with the customer or the brand in their surveys. It highlights a fundamental question: what do you want to engage your people with? If it’s just with you as an employer, then the “great place to work” approach is fine. But if you want to engage your people with your customers and your brand, the current most common approaches are very short of the mark.

Our view? Engagement is really about three things: i) are your people engaged with you as an employer?; ii) are they engaged with serving your customers and delivering your brand?; iii) and are they engaged with delivering your business strategy (growth, profit, globalisation)?

Engagement is hugely over-reported

Half of our respondents indicated that, in their most recent engagement survey, their “score” was above 70%. Based on all we hear about the current engagement deficit, this leaves a very uncomfortable question: are the bulk of these surveys painting an accurate picture?

We think there are several causes at play here.

  • Engagement survey models are too generic: most surveys ask about a definition of engagement which suits the survey provider and helps them build their own benchmarking database; few are tailored for each and every company being surveyed. Often, these off-the-shelf surveys are simply asking questions which are too easy to answer positively. The solution? Demand a bespoke definition of engagement and a survey to reflect that.
  • The measures are too easy: we’ve all seen it: the standard five point scale with survey reports focused on the “percentage positive” (agrees and strongly agrees). But all of our own engagement research shows that it’s the “top box” people who act differently – to each other as colleagues and, more importantly, towards customers. Firms need to stop resting on the easy laurels of “% positive”; track yourself on your top-box scores and then you’ll be truly focused on who the really engaged people are.
  • Make it tougher (and help yourself discriminate more!): There is a measure called “full engagement”. This doesn’t just take a nice, cosy average of your five main engagement questions, giving you a pleasing (but misleading) 70% engaged “score”. It takes a much tougher approach: full engagement looks at how many of your people (in an organisation, a division or a team) score you top box on ALL of your engagement model questions. It’s tougher because what you’re measuring is how many people are “firing on all cylinders” – how many are engaged with all the aspects you want them to be. It’s much harder to get high scores on (you’re asking people to jump more “hurdles” to count as fully engaged). But it’s also a much more powerful predictor of hard business outcomes – talent retention, customer satisfaction and profitable growth.

Trust is (still) low

Despite years of working on employee engagement survey processes, there is still a huge trust gap in most organisations. While seven in ten respondents told us that their employees trust that the research process is confidential, only just over half feel their employees trust that senior leaders will listen to their opinions; and even fewer, 42%, trust that positive change will happen as a result of the research.

Why is this? We find three common reasons:

  • A frightening number of senior leaders, while saying employee engagement is one of their top priorities, fail to act accordingly. Huge volumes of evidence show that engagement drives hard business outcomes. Leaders need to act on that and take engagement data seriously.
  • Managers often get drowned in data. Most surveys pump out huge volumes of descriptive bar charts and do not help managers to hone in on the few key drivers that will improve engagement in their own area. Smarter analytical techniques need to be used to help managers focus on the few bits of data that matter, forming any action plans around those alone and not getting distracted by a mass of irrelevant data points.
  • There’s often little support for turning data into action. Firms need to put more into engagement toolkits, planning sessions and employee “labs” to help get the frontline involved in acting on the data they have generated: using them to help form the solutions to a firm’s engagement challenges.

Its all about how you lead and communicate

The essence of James Carville’s famous phrase to the Clinton campaign (“It’s the economy, stupid!”), can be just as neatly applied to engagement. Endless tomes have been written about the drivers of engagement. But our data shows that the vast majority of organisations are focusing their efforts on two main areas way beyond any others as the way to unlock engagement: leadership and communication.
But just think about it for a moment. What’s made the biggest difference to you in the jobs where you’ve felt most engaged? The majority of people will say just that: how did leaders behave; and how effective was communications inside the organisation.

In order to drive higher levels of engagement over the next 12 months, close to three quarters of our respondents said that they are prioritising leadership and seven-in-ten said communication. And there are some interesting regional variations: heading into 2015, leadership is particularly the focus within Asia Pacific and EMEA while the Americas are looking to communications to improve employee engagement.

So what really matters? Our own research suggests the detailed drivers of engagement under leadership and communication vary hugely by organisation, culture and state of the business. However, the most common are:


  • Trust: are leaders seen as doing what they say they will?
  • Visibility: do I get contact with leaders or are they always behind closed doors?
  • Living the values: is there consistency in the values which you ask us at the frontline to live by being applied at every level?


  • Broadcast: do I get the information I need to perform effectively in my role?
  • Dialogue: do my opinions count here and, when I offer them, are they genuinely listened to and acted upon when appropriate?
  • Collaboration: how effectively do different parts of the organisation speak to each other?

Theres a distinct lack of strategy

Finally, we found that, staggeringly, only just over half of organisations (55%) have an explicit employee engagement strategy. And even amongst those that do:

  • While 86% of senior leaders are familiar with it
  • Only 65% of people managers and 38% of employees are aware of it

Hardly any wonder then that engagement is treated as a tactical, HR project in so many firms rather than being seen as a strategic business challenge at Board level. To a great degree, HR has the most pivotal role to play here. Engagement should be a core part of any people strategy. But it needs a strategy in itself:

  • What business objectives will engagement help deliver upon?
  • Where do we need to focus to improve engagement (and what will we not be doing)?
  • What levers can we best pull to help deliver engagement?
  • How will we do this with different employee segments?
  • How will we measure our success?

In a nutshell

Employee engagement remains a pivotal driver of business success. But some simple things could see organisations tackling it in a much more effective way:

  • Make it as much about customers, the brand and the business as it is about “HR issues”
  • Get tough about measuring engagement and don’t fool yourselves with easy to get, high “scores”: be more discerning
  • Build trust by helping people get involved in planning engagement for the future themselves
  • Don’t get distracted: in the main, tackling leadership behaviours and communications effectiveness will solve the greater part of your engagement puzzle
  • Get strategic: if you don’t have an engagement strategy, take a good look in the mirror