Why your employee engagement model will never work

Written by
Changeboard Team

01 Jan 2015

01 Jan 2015 • by Changeboard Team

How useful is your employee engagement model?

Employee engagement is a big industry. Since its inception in the 1990s, it has grown rapidly. With that growth has come a surge in 'off-the-shelf' (OTS) engagement survey models – models which are supposed to define how an engaged employee behaves in your own organisation. And these are used by many businesses across the globe. 

But how useful are they and are they really helping companies to solve their own business and people challenges?

There are a number of inherent (but very un-discussed) problems with many of these OTS engagement models. Here are just a few:

Engagement is too 'standardised'

The vast majority of employee engagement surveys are still made up of totally OTS questionnaires. While this is an incredibly profitable model for the engagement survey companies, it does little to help the companies buying from them. Similar questionnaires from the same research provider using the same 'model' of engagement might be used for clients as diverse as a major retailer, a manufacturer and a civil service department. Do we really believe that what engagement looks like for a till operator, an engineer and a senior public servant are one and the same?

There is an undoubted need to tailor engagement to your own organisation.

Engagement is too HR-focused

The majority of OTS models use a very narrow definition of engagement. In the same way that “job satisfaction” was too narrow in the 1980s and early 1990s, most engagement models still focus solely on a pure-play HR view of employees: do you like working here?; do you feel proud to work here?; do you want to keep working here?; would you tell others to come and work here?

Very few engagement models focus on either how to engage the employee with customer service delivery or with how to optimise performance. In light of the focus of many organisations on the customer and performance differentials in the post-recession economy, this cannot be sustainable.

Engagement models simply must start to include aspects of engagement with the customer and engagement with your business strategy.

Engagement is too focused on external benchmarks

In part, the use of OTS engagement models is driven by a demand for external benchmarking. Clients often want to be able to compare their own scores with those of their competitors. However, this doesn’t necessarily help you ask the right questions about your engagement, your culture or your business challenges. In addition, external benchmarks tell you relatively little. Most board presentations only spend one slide on these comparisons:  they are often little more than a comfort blanket. In reality, external benchmarks do not make you great – they just help you to see whether you are as average as the rest of the pack. 

The only way to break the prevalence of OTS models is to kick the benchmarking habit.

Improving your engagement: one

Improving how engagement models help companies to drive performance and deliver on business results requires three steps:

Tailoring your engagement model

You need to start with an understanding of what the business is trying to achieve (what are your three to four main strategic objectives?). Then, work back to define what engagement needs to look like in your business to help achieve those outcomes. Finally, use the research to uncover what the main drivers of that bespoke engagement for your own firm look like.

For example, if you are going through a major transformation programme, your engagement model should be focused on how engaged your people are with driving change through the firm. If you are in the middle of an ambitious growth strategy, your engagement model should be centred around how connected your employees are with that strategy and what can enable them to drive growth for you.

Simply start with two basic questions: “engagement with what?” and “engagement for what?”

Improving your engagement: two

Connecting engagement to your business outcomes

Secondly, your engagement model needs to focus on more than just the “great place to work” items.  It also needs to look at:

Connection to the strategy: How well do employees understand and connect to what the organisation is trying to achieve as a whole.

Engagement with performance: What drives employees to optimise their productivity and performance (as opposed to being satisfied with you as their employer)?

 Engagement with the customer: What engages employees to be customer-focused and to put themselves in the shoes of the customer every day (as opposed to what engages them with their employer – a very different question)?

Improving your engagement: three

Quitting the benchmarking obsession

Finally, firms need to lose the comfort blanket of external benchmarks. Most companies complain that their engagement survey feels too 'generic' – the questions just aren’t closely related to your own challenges, issues and culture. But this is simply because you are caught in a trap of using OTS questionnaires simply so you can be benchmarked every which way on all of these standardised questions. The challenge is: are they the right questions for your own firm?

Ask yourself this: What will you do when you reach the heady heights of the benchmark score? Companies should be focusing on becoming the very best they can be, not just as good as the competition.

To break this habit, companies need to be focusing on two other key aspects of their engagement data:

The key drivers of engagement in your company: What is going to make us great at our engagement game (not how do we compare to others)?  Focusing on your own drivers is much more likely to create improvement and deliver hard KPIs. Just comparing yourself to others doesn’t help achieve the same outcome.

Internal best-practice: Where are our very best engaging leaders and managers and how are they converting this into achieving high engagement and strong business results? Diving into engagement best-practice amongst your top 50 leaders or managers will teach you a lot more about how to gain improvement around both engagement and performance than staring at a myriad of external benchmark norms.

In a nutshell

So, in short, to get your engagement model working for you: be more demanding, create a bespoke approach, make engagement a business issue and focus on your own boat (not that of others).