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Employee Engagement: Stop Measuring, Start Doing

By Alicia Mandel  ::  Leader Development

We’ve all heard the cliche: “What gets measured, gets done.” In the case of employee engagement, I say maybe not. For years, organizations have been measuring employee engagement. Organizations like Gallup and Towers and Hay Group have made millions of dollars administering employee engagement surveys that ask hundreds of questions and measure how people feel at work at some given point in time. Don’t get me wrong — it’s what organizations are asking for — and I’ve done it too, for years and years. But my question is this:

How come, after all these years of measuring employee engagement, we still haven’t moved the needle on the very basic service profit chain?

Does it really matter if employees are engaged anyway, as long as they're doing their work? You tell me… Engaged employees are happier and more productive employees. They connect more strongly with their organization and are more loyal to the mission. They are what drives a workforce forward, particularly amid change — because they do what is required AND MORE. So, if this is true, why then, after all this time, don’t business leaders (and HR for that matter) understand the correlation between business outcomes and employee engagement? Why haven’t most companies been able to get it right?

A little history

In the early 1990’s Dr. William Kahn introduced the term Employee Engagement when talking about an employee’s “discretionary effort.” Then, in the mid 90’s Gallup came up with the Q12 — the 12 simple but critical questions that employers can use to measure how much of this employee-based discretionary effort is being used to drive their productivity. The results were shocking. Let’s put it this way: results today are the highest they’ve been since 2000, and they are at 31%. 31%?! That is the percentage of engaged employees we have in America.

So, we’ve been measuring this for over twenty years and we’re still only at 31%? WHY? (For more on the Q12, click here)

Here’s why

Organizations and the people that lead them don’t “just do it” (to steal a line from Nike). Oh, they think they’re doing it. They build action teams. They rally around it. They share the results (at least some do).

But how many can truly say they are focused on engaging the hearts and minds of employees as they drive their strategy forward?

I recently met with a senior leader who was discussing his strategy with me. He showed me his PowerPoint deck, his communication plan and his much longer execution plan. It was thorough and well thought out. He had reviewed it with this Board of Directors, as well as the Executive team. Our conversation went like this:

Him: What do you think?
Me: Are you sure, you really want me to be honest?
Him: Yes, of course, that’s why I asked.
Me: (and as always, this is where the coaching gets dicey — does he really want the truth?? Have I built enough trust to give him the truth? In this case, I thought yes). I think it’s a great plan — it’s thoughtful and almost complete — yet, there is a big component missing. Nowhere in this 20-page plan is the mention of the word “employees”. How do you expect to get any of this done without thinking about how to engage the employees?
Him: … (No words — his jaw dropped.)

This is a leader that is typically very in tune with the organizational culture. He is always concerned about communicating plainly and with transparency, yet he is absolutely not alone. How many leaders truly understand that if they focus on the employees — on real employee engagement, what Dr. Kahn and Gallup meant from the beginning — that we really wouldn’t need to measure anything except business results? And they would speak for themselves.

But why is it such a leap? Why don’t business leaders truly understand and believe in this notion that employee engagement drives business results — actual outcomes? My guess is because they fear taking their eye off the results ball for one minute to focus on something else — even if it’s a driver. They believe in their heads that engagement drives results, but do they really believe it in their hearts? If they did, overall engagement in this country would undoubtedly be higher than 31%, wouldn’t it?

Or, maybe they do believe it, but don’t know what to do about it. Maybe they think if they just measure it it’s bound to get better, right? Well congratulations to us. We’ve proven that’s not the case.

Here’s some good news.

There is something that we can do about it. I’ve been in exploration mode lately and have come across some really great tools that get to the essence of what Gallup has been talking about. They don’t measure engagement, they just do it.

Waggl is a tool I have just recently launched at Apollo Education Group. It is a real-time pulsing platform that allows leaders to ask questions of large groups of employees and receive anonymous, real time feedback, quickly. It also gives employees the opportunity to voice their opinion and vote on answers that their peers have submitted to which they feel particularly aligned. It’s fast, it’s cool, it’s transparent and it creates a culture of listening. And, since one of Gallup’s 12 questions is: “At work, my opinion seems to count”, it is completely relevant to driving engagement. Not measuring engagement, driving it. It’s very easy to use — it only takes a minute — to create, and the best part is, the results are real time so you (and everyone else) can get them immediately — it even puts the results into a presentation format if that’s what you’re into. Waggl was recently written up in the Wall Street Journal.

Gallup also asks: “Do I know what is expected of me?” How can we be engaged if we are constantly trying to work out what is the important stuff? Enter Workboard. This is a simple app that managers actually choose for themselves — no heavy IT infrastructure required. Once downloaded, the tool gives managers the ability to determine who is on their team (think beyond direct reports — alas, this also includes cross functional teams, reaching beyond silos), and then align weekly goals — not lofty, prophetic goals, but real, execution based goals that either get completed in that week, or don’t. There are several other really useful bells and whistles embedded — like badging, scheduling and a myriad of things that make project implementation much easier.

Are you satisfied with 30%?

Maybe it’s better than this in your organization, but is it good enough to drive the kind of outcomes you are looking for? Don’t get me wrong — there are definitely some companies out there that are getting it right. We know them, we talk about them, and we benchmark them. How does your organization measure up? Are you simply measuring it, or are you actually doing it? Tools like Workboard and Waggl have made it easier. But to really capture hearts and minds of employees it takes courageous people to step up and use the tools and do the very hard work — not just measure it. And isn’t it worth it? Don’t we spend enough time at work to want to create an atmosphere where people can be at their best, where they have the tools and resources to be successful? Where people care about each other, and help each other grow and learn? I certainly do.

About the author

Alicia Mandel

Alicia Mandel

Chief Learning Officer, Apollo Education Group

For the last six years Alicia Mandel has led Apollo Education Group’s learning, organizational development and executive succession planning programs as Chief Learning Officer, Vice President, Learning and Organizational Development. As a key member of Apollo’s Human Resources leadership team, she is instrumental in driving the company’s organizational capabilities across a diverse employee base with operations across the U.S. and abroad.

A recognized industry expert in learning and change management, Alicia was charged with building a culture that is aligned with Apollo’s high-performance and growth objectives. At Apollo, she introduced the Apollo Core Values as well as EPIC, a social media reward and recognition platform. In addition, she streamlined the company’s Learning function to ensure it is designed to meet its objectives and create the necessary ROI.

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