I assume you are reading this at work. How’s your day going? Give it a score out of ten.
Six? Seven? Eight? Sound about right?
Aside from the fact that you may have taken some time away from the pressing business of the job that you love to read this, welcome to the dark arts of Employee Engagement.
I’ll talk about actual surveys later, but I recall something somebody once said to me: “I love my job, but I still hate it 60% of the time.” He was a novelist who worked when he wanted to, for himself, at home. No meetings, no presentations, no client needs analysis. And no “great place to work” survey form to fill in.
Have you ever sat through an Employee Engagement presentation and watched as the wiggly line of How Much People Like Being in Work meanders between 75 and 81% over the preceding ten years? I have, and it struck me that it was the modern equivalent of the medieval philosophical debates about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.
At the heart of employment is the notion that Company x will pay Individual y the sum of z to stop doing what they want to do and come to work instead. In return, Individual y will sell their time and labour to Company x between the hours of n and n+8 in return for money to live. It was ever thus. In times gone by, no one ever asked a mill worker or a docker or an accountant if they were engaged with their work – and they almost never tried to get them to quantify their feelings about work through a survey – but they just recognised that, implicit in the transaction, there was a sense of frustration arising from not being free to do what you want, when you want. You either enjoyed your work (most of the time) or you didn’t.
Unfortunately, the human itch to measure and account for the vicissitudes of life meant that this ratio of work-based satisfaction to dissatisfaction had to be accommodated, and a whole swathe of what David Graeber termed Bullshit Jobs arose to service it. And what, globally, do they find? Surely “what gets measured gets managed”, right?
Well, in July 2018 ADP Research Institute found that the percentage of "Fully Engaged" employees was only 0.3% different to what it had been in 2015. Are you wondering if it was up or down? I’m not going to tell you, because, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. It means that globally approximately 84% of people are just Coming to Work and the number doesn’t change, despite all the surveys and measurements.
So, if we stop obsessing about numbers, and fretting about how we can bump next year’s survey figures up a magical 2% what can we do to make the exchange of time for money more acceptable?
Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, authors of the fantastic Nine Lies About Work suggest that the thing that makes a difference to team engagement is being on a team. People who said they were on a team were 2.3 times more likely to feel Fully Engaged than those who were not.
“Great! We have teams! Job done!”
Not so fast.
Teams are more than just groupings on an Org Design chart. In fact, most work happens outside of these structured boxes. Of people in the survey who said they worked in teams, 65% of them said that they work on more than one team and that this team was not represented in the Org Design chart.
So you probably don’t know how many teams you have, or which are your best and most engaged teams. Quick! Commission a report! Find out! Quantify it! Draw up a survey!
That’s just more pointless busy work. I’ll save you the effort. The same survey found that in teams where the members strongly agreed that they trusted their team leader 45% were Fully Engaged. Put another way, a worker is twelve times more likely to be Fully Engaged if they trust their team leader.
“OK! Let’s send all of our team leaders on a course so they are super trusted!”
Again, I’ll save you the time.
The two factors that create and maintain trust in a leader are encapsulated in these two questions:
Apply your own experience here. I’m sure we’ve all been in work situations where the answers to these two questions were “no” and “absolutely not”. You certainly remember the few occasions where you could answer both in the affirmative.
At this point I could go off on a tangent about the folly of feedback, Personal Improvement Programmes and the chimera that is trying to make everybody great at everything. Or how it is possible to run a business more effectively without a whole swathe of middle managers whose only function is to check on the work of others… but those are topics for another day.
Instead I will repeat the thing that we have found in all the work we have done with a range of organisations in a broad spectrum of industries. Talk to your people. Find out what makes their day better and what makes it worse. Listen to them and help them make the changes that they would like to see. And if you are too close to the matters under consideration to take an unbiased view of things, pay an external facilitator to come in to help you make sense of the stories they tell.
That’s the only Employee Engagement that matters.
Colour; Noun (Vicky Holding and Howard Karloff)