Culture Chat

And other musings on humanizing the workplace
Culture is About How You Work. Engagement is Not.

Culture is About How You Work. Engagement is Not.

March 29, 2017
Charlie Judy

Well, it happened. It was bound to. According to Aon, for the first year since 2012 Employee Engagement Scores actually decreased…globally. Some will weep. Some will frantically jump into action. And some will simply sigh.


Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s still important to measure employee engagement – or some semblance thereof – from time to time. It has served its purpose…and a good one at that. At the very least, it gave us something to pay attention to. And that kind of awareness was where much of our modern-day efforts to create better workplaces were birthed. But it’s time we also start facing some truths about this workforce analytic that, for whatever reason, has been the bellwether for workplace sentiment for a good 20 years now.

  1. The Slog. If you’re using employee engagement scores to measure progress, then don’t expect progress to come quickly. Since 2007, global scores have hovered right around 60%. The swing year-over-year has never exceeded 3 points. And on average, it increases .75 points a year. Take a reasonable margin of error out, and we’re talking about chump change.
  2. The Waste. We spend at least $1B a year on employee engagement surveys. Yet accordingly to Forbes, most companies say they aren’t getting the value they want. In our own research with HR Leaders, 40% of them say they “rarely” or “never” do anything meaningful with the results.
  3. The Lag. Employee Engagement scores essentially tell us something about how our employees feel about how we work. That sentiment is based almost entirely on things that have already happened: people already worked with, projects already endured, experiences already had. And by the time you actually get your data back and even start thinking about what you’re going to do about it – let alone actually doing something with it – that’s some pretty old data. Employee Engagement is a lagging indicator, not a leading indicator
  4. The Disconnect. Engaged employees do not always correlate with success. It’s awesome that you have a bunch of employees who are really satisfied with and connect to how you work. It’s great that they are willing to put forth discretionary effort. But if that effort (how you work) - doesn’t drive your success, who cares? I had an exchange with an HR executive the other day who told me that they have “great” Employee Engagement scores. I asked him why their stock was down 16% over the last 12 months (the S&P 500 is up 15% over the same period). He said, “one has nothing to do with the other.” I countered, “then why do you care about Employee Engagement?” He didn’t have an answer for that.

I could probably go on and on. I won’t. This is not, after all, a treatise to dispose of our beloved Employee Engagement survey. It is merely a call to take a step back and wonder whether you’re getting what you want and need from this exercise. It’s a call to stop doing it only so you can say you did it. More than anything, though, it’s a plea to worry less about how your employees feel about work. Start learning more about how you (really) work. That’s culture! And if you can understand your culture at a nuanced level – one articulated by tangible behaviors and actions – then you can really start to figure out what’s driving your success and what’s holding you back from more of it.

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