By Mike Klein on December 19, 2022
3 minute read

“Employee Engagement” - Why It Deserves Coal this Christmas 

In the US and some other parts of the world, there’s an old tradition of giving a lump of coal to a child unworthy of actual presents.  In that spirit of giving, I’d like to give a metaphorical lump of coal to a particularly unworthy practice - the misuse of the many definitions of “employee engagement.” 

Much of the focus in business on the idea of “employee engagement” is the idea that there is a linear correlation between performance and “engagement” levels, from which one can extrapolate a return on investment (ROI) for investment in “engagement” improvement programs and platforms. 

This correlation has been picked up (and marketed) by Gallup and others who sell employee engagement surveys to organizations.  Most importantly, this correlation is defined on the basis of their clients’ performance against the results of these employee engagement surveys themselves. 

It’s one thing that Gallup has never comprehensively proven that efforts to improve employee engagement scores actually improve organizational performance, which is something that merits a couple of briquettes in its stocking. 

But what really deserves a stocking full of the carbon-belching black stuff is the practice by other players who swap in their own, very different definitions of “engagement” while claiming their products or strategies will deliver the promised shift that Gallup highlights.

Gallup’s definition is based on the answers to a set of 12 questions:.   

  • I know what is expected of me at work. 
  • I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right. 
  • At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day. 
  • In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work. 
  • My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person. 
  • There is someone at work who encourages my development. 
  • At work, my opinions seem to count. 
  • The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important. 
  • My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work. 
  • I have a best friend at work. 
  • In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress. 
  • This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow. 

But a common practice in the internal communication software industry is to swap the Gallup definition for a common intranet definition of engagement as the extent to which employees open, like, or comment on internal communication content - “engagement” rates. 

Indeed, some vendors even promote the use of “ROI calculators” that intentionally conflate increased “engagement rates” with the “engagement improvements” assessed by Gallup. 

So, what they are essentially saying is the increased viewing, like-ing and commenting stimulated by internal communication content will produce a linear and bankable relationship with improved company performance and productivity. 

Now, Internal Communication in general can have some influence over the answers of some of these questions - like alignment around mission and purpose, awareness of the development opportunities a company offers, and the participation of managers in the activities required to support good employee engagement scores on the questions covering talking with employees about their career progress and “seeming” to care about employees or responding to their feedback. 

But there’s no way in a flaming pile of coal that click rates and likes alone can generate positive answers to all of the Gallup questions, much less the bankable increase in performance these vendors claim.   

Substitution of the intranet definition of engagement for the Gallup definition of engagement isn’t simply a coal-worthy practice on its own. 

It also has brutal consequences for internal communicators.  It creates expectations of linear performance improvements that they are hard pressed to deliver, and distracts them from focusing on projects and activities that can make a real and tangible difference. 

Indeed, a main reason why I’m working with Sparrow Connected is that they’ve chosen to buck this trend - by not hitching their wagon to a flawed relationship between employee engagement scores and intranet metrics and claiming it to be the magic solution. 

Instead, Sparrow Connected is committed to supporting and empowering internal communication to use technology to drive the specific business improvements that their organizations need, like improving communication with deskless workers and helping IC pros reduce business noise by better targeting messages towards the people who need to be involved in specific initiatives and activities. Indeed, Sparrow Connected takes a more intelligent, selective and company-appropriate view of employee engagement than the other players I’ve seen in the market. 

Indeed, making the workplace more engaging, is far more interesting than promising more than you can deliver.  That’s why I’m proud to be working with Sparrow Connected. 

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