Staff Engagement – no it’s not just another fad!

There’s a lot of ‘stuff’ running around about staff engagement and the topic is hardly new or ground-breaking. Nothing I say here is going to change any of that. I do however have a number of observations.

I’d start off with the cliché it goes without saying that staff are an organisation’s most important asset, but from what I’ve seen it clearly does need to be said and, vitally, acted upon. There’s an abundance of lip-service paid to staff engagement, satisfaction, organisational culture or whatever you want to call it. I don’t however see anything like the same level of walking the talk.

It’s a great example of the often huge chasm that exists between the CEO, middle management, and the teams on the ground. The CEO genuinely believes that his/her organisation is highly active doing what is right for the staff, whereas the majority of the people either don’t see any of it or have no faith that anything they say or suggest will be taken seriously. In a simplistic and superficial way, the problem more than likely sits around middle management but that’s not necessarily the actual source of the core problem. Middle managers typically see themselves as the ones who have to act on senior management’s vision and strategy, adapting and modifying it to recognise what they see as the realities on the ground. This is often where it goes pear-shaped and everyone, well at least the senior and middle managers, seem surprised.

Without doubt, I am a big fan of engagement/leadership/culture measurement surveys and related tools, with the caveat that in many ways how these tools are used is probably more important that which particular tool is used. That said, there are some approaches which are better than others especially around the types of questions asked and how the data is interpreted and then converted into actions. (Presuming results of such surveys aren’t buried never to be heard of again, which sadly does happen.) There are still in use some classically stupid questions, such as those around satisfaction with personal remuneration. I’m of the view that you shouldn’t ask questions where the answers are likely to be obvious NOR those which you may not be able or willing to do something about. Consider the scenario where the vast majority of your workforce tells you that they consider themselves underpaid, or they ‘work harder than they should’ for their pay (whatever the hell that means), not exactly an atypical outcome. If the organisation is brave enough to publish, unsanitised, such results then unless they are actually prepared to do something about it all that will happen is they will further alienate their workforce.

Akin to asking the right questions is also getting the context right. For example, many surveys ask a question something like “has your manager praised you within the last week?”. Potentially there could be a lot of ‘no’ answers to that ultimately resulting in said manager being required to address that problem. This is an example of an experience question but the factual answers may not reveal the true position. To do that there needs to be a recognition of the desire i.e. a staff member may have answered no but had they been asked they may also reveal that they’re totally happy with that outcome because they’re not looking for this type of regular feedback. Asking only experience-related questions has a strong chance in resulting in incorrect interpretation leading to misguided, and potentially damaging, corrective actions. I’d also say that this is an area where ‘willing amateurs’ are often seen to venture, believing they are able to design satisfaction surveys which will reveal what the organisation needs to know. The risk of embarking on a correction programme which will probably at best to be ineffective is significant. In all likelihood it won’t be recognised that the root of the failure goes right back to the survey design, data collection and interpretation phases. Much easier to blame first and middle level managers for failing to properly implement the corrective action programme!

Yes this ‘engagement stuff’ is important and it’s not just a management fad. But like so many leadership and management practices, it needs to be done properly and with true commitment.