Performance | Engagement for engagement's sake is pointless

Engagement for engagement's sake is pointless

Stuart Hearn, founder and CEO, Clear Review

In a way, the annual engagement survey can be as tyrannical as its cousin, the annual appraisal.

They have some things in common. They’re both a snapshot of something that we feel and experience all year. Because they’re done annually, with a certain amount of ceremony and weight, they can take on a disproportionate significance. And, of course, they tend to be HR’s responsibility.

When we built Clear Review, we started with the knowledge that performance management, for most companies, didn’t actually improve performance. Its purpose, almost always, was to make the downstream activities simpler for the business. Pay rises (or not); promotions (or not): giving someone 3 out of 5 once a year made those activities easier.

Engagement has a similar problem. It’s done in isolation and, for many, is boiled down to a relatively small set of numbers. In some cases, the methodology is designed to ignore the majority and focus on the outliers: those who are super-engaged or actively disengaged. Whilst it might be interesting, and in some cases useful, to look at the organization as a whole, it misses most of the story.

There has been some excellent research in recent years on the factors that affect workplace performance. We’ve seen firsthand how continuous performance management, with the manager delivering regular coaching conversations and constructive real-time feedback, can move the dial on performance. Work engagement - the factor that determines how we feel about the tasks we do and our experience of work - is similarly influential. In fact, an analysis of the results of 30 engagement studies with more than 90,000 respondents found that work engagement was the single most influential factor in determining performance, both at task and and team level. Engagement makes a fundamental difference to the way we perform. But if we want to use this knowledge to improve performance, we can’t boil everything down to one number and we certainly can’t aggregate all the data. We need to get closer and we need to see more.

The answer is to find a way of making the engagement survey simpler so we can do it more frequently. If we can ask people just four quick questions - questions they can answer in a couple of minutes - we can do something that, we already know, gives us a clearer and more comprehensive picture. We can look at engagement in a continuous way. This insulates us from life’s ups and downs, because we’re not capturing one annual snapshot: we’re collecting data in an ongoing way. Most importantly of all, we can use this data to improve performance.

Astute readers will have noticed a disconnect. Engagement surveys need to be anonymous. You can’t expect honesty and candour if people know you’re able to connect their answers back to them. So we bridge that disconnect by reflecting the employee’s answers back at them. You make them responsible for their own engagement by prompting them to look at their answers, to understand what’s causing them to feel disengaged (or super-engaged, of course) and to use that information as part of their performance conversations with their manager. In the best tradition of adult-to-adult communication, we give people the data they need to make their own difference. What obstacles are stopping them from achieving their best? Which learning opportunities do they need to grow and develop? How can they improve their performance, improve their value to the organization and themselves, and do all this sustainably? All this becomes one of the pillars of performance conversations, and if the employee and manager can work together to overcome the obstacles and take advantage of the opportunities then that really will boost engagement, and performance, and… you get the idea.

We work so hard to make the experience of work better, but so often we miss the elephant in the room: the work itself. By making that the focus of engagement, we solve two problems simultaneously. We make the actual work - not just the environment, not just the perks - better and more rewarding, and that in turn inspires our people to give the best of themselves in a more consistent and continuous way. We show that we’re committed to creating a positive work environment in which people can thrive. All we need to do is place people’s engagement back in their own hands and give them the tools they need to understand and affect it.

And HR? HR who have wrestled with engagement data for all these years, doing their very best to think of new ways to engage people. HR can step back from the day-to-day and focus on the insights. Although it’s not right to share engagement data on a personal level, it’s very much possible to look at it from a team perspective. And there are huge opportunities there: to help and support managers who need more engagement in their teams; to share examples from the managers who do this sort of thing brilliantly so the wider organisation can learn from them. HR’s role in this should be strategic, not tactical. With the right information and the right philosophy, HR can step out of their compliance shoes. Goodbye, engagement police. Hello, enablers of engagement and performance.

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