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Challenging the accepted thinking about engagement

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

Does your organization do an annual engagement survey? If so, why, and how do you measure its business impact?

Employees' attitudes and behaviours can influence an organization's success and productivity. There's ample research that suggests a strong relationship among employee engagement, productivity and results.

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The most important output of engagement surveys for most senior leaders is the percentage of employees who are highly engaged, moderately engaged and at risk. The traditional wisdom is, the higher the number of employees who are highly engaged, the better. Areas scored the lowest typically are accepted as the areas to focus on and improve over the next 12 months.

As an example, Company ABC's 2015 engagement scores showed 56 per cent of its workforce was highly engaged, 24 per cent moderately engaged, and 20 per cent at risk. In 2016, after a year of work and effort, the scores improved to 58 per cent highly engaged, 25 per cent moderately engaged, and 17 per cent at risk.

A growing trend by critical human resources leaders is determining what a traditional engagement survey really tells them. Using the Company ABC example:

What does a 2 per cent improvement really mean?

Senior leaders who compare engagement outputs (e.g., key performance behaviours) to key performance indicators are in a position to see what, if any, impact a 2 per cent variance has on results. If this is not done, this 2 per cent variance impact to the organization's overall performance results is unknown. More senior leaders are asking for evidence behind engagement numbers and the linkage to business outcomes that are transparent and evidence-based.

Why are some employees more engaged than others?

Consider two employees with the same training, experience, job, and manager but with different perceptions. Traditional engagement surveys fail to provide insight on why employees working side by side perceive their culture, leadership and jobs differently. More senior leaders want to know not what is going on but why. Beyond engagement is an approach for maximizing workforce productivity that examines the relationship between employees' health and engagement to predict productivity. Beyond engagement facilitates a two-way accountability model, as it highlights what both the employer and employee can do differently.

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What do we know about the 56 per cent who claim they are highly engaged?

More HR leaders are becoming interested in examining the highly engaged group with respect to what percentage falls into each of the three categories: healthy, moderately healthy and at risk. A traditional engagement survey doesn't provide the full story of what's really going on within this group, such as insight on employees' health (e.g., burnout risk). With the growth in numbers of employees with chronic disease and mental health issues in Canada, senior leaders are accepting the linkage among employees' health, engagement and productivity.

What's in it for employees who participate in an engagement survey?

The most obvious benefit is an opportunity to share their point of view of what the organization is doing well and not doing well. But for this 15- to 20-minute investment in time there's no immediate value for employees. Typically, it can be months before they hear or see any impact from an engagement survey. There's a movement to provide employees real time feedback and coaching that can help them improve their engagement, cope with workplace stress, improve attendance, and deal with their total health. The belief is that employees own their health and career. If employees are going to be asked for information to help their employer, this same time can be used for employees to consider what they can control.

Are we using the best engagement survey for our business needs?

It's wise to have the end in mind and to be clear on the why. Picking a survey simply based on price, number of items and speed may not get the desired outcome. The next generation of employers of choice awards is measuring total health that also includes engagement. Whatever tool is used, it's advisable to ensure that it has been created utilizing psychometrics, a field of study concerned with the theory and technique of psychological measurement. It includes best practices such as statistical evidence supporting survey design and analytics. An effective survey tool ultimately provides an accurate baseline to build on and a way to link employees' behaviours to organizational results.

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Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto. He is also the president of Howatt HR Consulting and founder of TalOp, in Kentville, N.S.

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