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Nov 14, 2012

It seems like most organizations these days are spending significant time, money and energy in an effort to drive up employee engagement through surveys or other efforts. But, is that investment really paying off?

The engagement survey is a seductive mistress for leaders and human resources professionals. After all, who doesn’t want to have engaged employees?

Most employee engagement experts speak with great assurance in their voice when they tell you that engagement drives improved performance. And even better, the employee engagement survey is finally a way quantify the impact of the “softer” work we do in human resources on talent development and motivation.

“Not so fast, my friend”

Win, win, win. We often don’t even need a business case to make the investment in employee engagement. It just seems to make too much sense.

But, as ESPN’s college football analyst Lee Corso is fond of saying, “Not so fast, my friend.”

The engagement survey is a seductive mistress for leaders and human resources professionals.

Because so many organizations have been seduced by the siren call of engagement surveys, they’ve neglected to do some of the really important work necessary to unlock the real power of employee engagement. There are a few fundamental questions to answer that will guide you in pursuing employee engagement in a way that is more likely to produce a measurable impact on your organization’s business results.

As you think about your employee engagement efforts, start with these questions before you make and investments or decisions:

1. How do you define engagement for your organization?

The first step of measurement is definition. One of the biggest issues with employee engagement is that there seems to be as many definitions of engagement as there are people on the planet.

In the absence of a standardized definition of engagement, it is absolutely critical to get clear on what engagement means for your organization. If you haven’t defined engagement for your organization clearly and you have been using an engagement survey from a vendor, you are defaulting to their definition of engagement which may or may not be relevant to your business.

2. How does engagement drive your business results?

Definition is the first step. The second is to clearly articulate how that definition of engagement drives business results in your organization. And, you can’t take the word of an engagement survey vendor on this.

When a vendor assures you that they have evidence that engagement drives results, here’s what they really mean: “We have some evidence that shows a correlation between our definition and method of measuring engagement to very specific business outcomes in a particular client’s organization.”

This doesn’t mean squat to you unless your definition of engagement matches theirs and the research they did was in a company nearly identical to yours.

The answer to this question must be specific to your organization. It’s the answer to the CEO’s question, “Why should we do this?” Unless you can articulate what engagement is and draw a clear linkage to how it impacts the results that matter in your organization, this process will never be truly embraced by the executive suite.

3. Can we measure it in a way that impacts business results?

Measuring employee engagement is ultimately about employee research. It’s not about a number. It’s about actionable insights that enable leadership to make informed decisions about how to improve the work environment towards achieving great results.

With a definition in hand, it becomes much easier to make decisions related to the right survey tool and methodology to use.

When you think about how to do this research, one thing to consider seriously is the differentiation of employee responses. The way you look at your data should mirror your management philosophy. If you are a performance culture, how will you differentiate survey results by high versus low performers?

Because so many organizations have been seduced by the siren call of engagement surveys, they’ve neglected to do some of the really important work

4. How will we prove engagement’s impact on results?

Equipped with answers to the first three questions, don’t forget to collect the data that demonstrates the impact of all of your hard work. It’s one thing to say that engagement will produce better customer satisfaction. It’s another thing to show a direct linkage between the two data sets.

There is great potential in employee engagement. But, that potential is lost when we are careless about our definitions, measurement and actions to drive it. Employee engagement is a conceptual framework without a foundation of common definition.

Build that foundation for your organization and you have a much greater opportunity to unleash its power within your organization.

This was originally published on Teamster, The League of Extraordinary Speakers blog