05 November 2014

Congratulations on Your Engagement. Or are you feeling unsafe?

One of my most popular tweets recently was this one:
Conventional thinking – often promoted by HR specialists and others holding a managerial worldview – says that anonymously surveying employees for their: (pick one) engagement, satisfaction, motivation, net promoter score… provides management with useful metrics through which they can better understand how to get more productivity from their workers. The logic suggests that a better understanding of what’s working well and what could use some tweaking helps to create workplaces that enable job satisfaction, continually improving productivity, and long-term employee retention. Or so goes the theory, credited to Elton Mayo, famous for his interpretation of the Hawthorne Experiments, way back in the late 1930s.

In practice, despite the plethora of engagement and satisfaction surveys, Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report found that 70% of workers were either disengaged or “actively disengaged” in their work, and “emotionally disconnected” from the place in which they spend the vast majority of their waking hours. Yet, it is often the case that in-house engagement surveys (usually administered by an outside, third party to ensure anonymity) tell a very different story. With their own evidence seemingly refuting Gallup’s results, senior leaders enjoy a sense of personal satisfaction, if not personal pride, in their ability to create the exception-to-the-disengagement-rule workplace. Not so fast…

There is an additional, critical factor at play which calls into question the entire methodology surrounding metrics that purport to measure employee engagement. Imagine the following situation: You work for a boss who is known to take personal credit for things that happen well, and blame subordinates for mistakes. A boss who has a reputation for “managing up,” that is, ensuring that their own superior thinks well of them without concern for the effects on peers or those who report to him/her. A boss who is known to publicly belittle employees and has a temper with a short fuse. Now you are asked to complete the employee survey. Said boss strongly encourages full participation with the tacit (or not-so-tacit) suggestion with respect to the expected outcome. S/he may even offer perq-y bribes around the time of the survey like offsite meetings, sponsored lunches, or other material tokens.

Especially if the boss displays tendencies towards the “dark triad” personality type, employees have a sense that their future work assignments, availability of desirable opportunities, positive performance reviews (and the associated bonuses or salary increases) have become intimately entwined not only with participation in, but significantly, with the results of the survey.

In many organizations, and particularly among workgroups that are led by problematic managers, employees do not work in an environment in which they feel safe and secure in their employment. Such managers use the very powerful, coercive, and blunt instrument of performance reviews that determine who survives, who thrives, and who is relegated to that special HR hell of “Performance Improvement Plans” (or similarly euphemistic first steps to firing) to keep wayward employees in line. In doing so, they create environments of fear, rather than autonomous and active engagement. Despite the nominal anonymity afforded to the surveys, it is often not difficult for a manager to infer whom among his or her direct reports are not towing the “satisfied worker” line, often via the free-form comments or so-called verbatims. Quite understandably, employees are reluctant to give their honest opinions and advice, especially if they have had the opportunity to see retribution being meted out to a would-be whisteblower.

Thus, for any given employee engagement or satisfaction survey that shows reasonable but not necessarily stellar results, it may well be the case that employees are reasonably satisfied and engaged. On the other hand, these results could represent the practical reality that employees who feel unsafe in their workplace and cannot afford to jeopardize their employment will only very rarely express their true feelings.

Simply put, employee engagement surveys are largely inaccurate in unsafe environments. Thus, any reasonable result on the survey may equally be a sign of systemic problems that the engagement instrument is not designed to detect.

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