How Traditional Employee Engagement Can Crush Productivity

By PeopleFirst on February 26, 2018

When it comes to creating employee engagement, 87% of organizations cited it as being one of their top priorities. An estimated 66% of companies survey their people regularly. Yet, in their 2017 global study, Gallup finds that only 15% of employees are engaged at work.

Why this big disconnect?

Put aside the usual friction that may be encountered by any company initiative: poor communication of intent, unclear goals, declining management emphasis over time, and others. Employee engagement, with the associated annual cycle of measurement through a survey, is an initiative doomed to fail.


Employee Engagement - As Commonly Experienced

The lip service paid to employee engagement is rarely matched by consistent action. The graph below examines a ‘best practice’ cycle of an employee engagement programme which would look similar to the process recommended by the National Business Research Institute.




This is a process adopted by more than 70% of companies we have studied in Asia Pacific. A company takes about two months to prepare for the survey, another three or four months to process the analyses and gather qualitative opinions before spending one more month deciding what to do with the results. By the time an "Action Plan" is developed by the average manager (if at all), they're usually anywhere from four to six months after the survey had concluded.

All of this effort is made, ostensibly to get a handle on data about the “complexities of the myriad of organizational dynamics that act so powerfully on employee perceptions and drive their behavior.”


Disengaging With Data

The reality is, for the average manager, the survey is an unwelcome aberration to their "business-as-usual" (BAU) baseline. They track what directly affects how their performance is measured: number of widgets produced, the yield on materials used, safety incidents, project milestones, budget, and others. Therefore, the steps they take directly impact some or all of these numbers. They don't base their plans on 6-month-old survey data.

Peter Drucker is widely believed to have said: “what gets measured gets done.” Organizational habit is driven by the operational metrics chosen by leaders. These operational metrics are tracked on a daily, weekly, monthly, or even quarterly basis.

Employee engagement programmes in these companies require a significant investment of energy because they fall outside the regular operating parameters of leaders. Well-intentioned leaders who do make an effort are forced to wait months for the next survey, without knowing whether their actions were successful or not.

Huggy Rao and Robert Sutton discuss how companies can scale excellence by managing the “cognitive load” of an organization. While collecting employee engagement data is important in helping leaders motivate their teams better, the load created may not always be worth the insight generated. It also can create a drag on productivity as a capacity that could be used in alternative programs is channeled towards the administrative burden of running surveys.


Avoiding The Data Disengagement Spiral

It is tempting for many companies to see the above unfold and decide that

  • Employee surveys don’t work, and we’ll stop doing them; or
  • We know the results don’t work but we need to tick that box every year.

In both cases, leaders are forced to rely purely on their own instincts and prior experience in managing their teams.

There is a better way.

It is now possible to repeatedly track a team's "people status" and embed it into their regular operational cadence. Just as team managers adjust production processes to improve output or yield, they can now quickly adjust their management processes to improve team productivity.

John Deere, an agricultural equipment manufacturer, embeds the tracking of employee engagement into their bi-weekly scrum. They found that this helped them:

  1. Stay competitive in a rapidly changing business environment;
  2. Find problems before they escalated out of control;
  3. Build effective teams.

The way it works is simple: short questionnaires, anywhere from 1 to 15 questions, are sent out at a cadence determined by regular operations. In John Deere's case, each operational cycle lasts two weeks, so their surveys are sent every two weeks. Results are analyzed and communicated at each operational meeting, together with other production or project updates, and team leaders can take immediate action to rectify people problems proactively.

This methodology is known as pulse surveying, and is not to be confused with a shorter, more compressed version of traditional survey cycles. Having a half-yearly or quarterly survey, as long as the follow-up actions are discontinuous from BAU, creates an incremental cognitive load for the company each time the survey is executed, and is liable to create "survey fatigue."

Conversely, pulse surveying acts almost as a "Fitbit for management," allowing teams to self-regulate, managers to track the impact of their leadership style, and HR interventions to be more strategically targeted at segments that consistently find themselves needing help.

In my next post, I will cover just how a company can operationalize this process, the improvements that such a process can generate, and how this can transform leadership development, organizational efficiency, and of course, employee engagement.


This article by EngageRocket's CEO & Co-Founder Chee Tung Leong originally appeared on Forbes.

Tags: Employee Engagement, EngageRocket, HR analytics, Leadership, Performance Management, Workplace Culture