Can You Really Measure Engagement?
Author: Hugh Tonks, published: Jul 2, 2013
Originally posted by Hugh Tonks, Thymometrics in HRZone on May 16, 2013. If we are going to try to measure something, we need to know what it is we’re measuring. So an essential precursor to any attempt to measure engagement is to pin down a definition of what engagement actually is. Fortunately (and I’m not entirely sure I mean that) there are already many, many different definitions of engagement: some are simple, others highly complex; some appeal to common sense, others to statistics; some are very popular, others obscure. Which to pick? Well, it would be nice if we could plump for the ISO Standard Engagement Model, but sadly it doesn’t exist and is never likely to. So our only choice is to invent our own (appealing, but possibly unwise), or use one from an existing survey provider, and here we have an embarrassment of riches. But select one we must, and this is one situation where, as the saying goes, the best is the enemy of the good. There isn’t a perfect definition of engagement, only definitions which are good or bad fits for your organisation, its people and culture. Unless your survey provider’s methodology omits the obvious things (like asking about salary) or otherwise appears implausible, it’ll probably get you somewhere near the truth, and you should nevertheless get reasonable value from it despite any imperfections. So having picked a likely-looking definition of engagement, and developed or purchased your methodology for the measurement thereof, you can begin. But if you look at the methodology, you’ll discover that you’re not actually measuring something called “engagement” at all; instead you’re measuring proxies for engagement: some combination of factors which are deemed to be good indicators of engagement, and some outcomes which are deemed to be positively affected by a workforce that is engaged. How do we know that these factors are good indicators, and how can we be certain that the outcomes we measured arose because of our engagement levels? It would seem churlish to doubt survey suppliers with many years’ experience; yet due diligence demands a certain level of scepticism, so it’s worth asking, if only to confirm that an explanation does exist. The input to any engagement survey is important (“Garbage In, Garbage Out” applies as much here as anywhere), but even given good quality input, what can we say about the output from this engagement-measuring process, which, after all, is what your action plans will be based on? Often, we see the headline results expressed as an overall “employee engagement” percentage. That could mean one of several things, including:
- The percentage of employees who are engaged (as opposed to not engaged). For a yes/no classification like this, how is the dividing line drawn? How reliable and accurate is the test that classifies employees as being on one side of this line or the other, and what is the typical misclassification rate?
- The average engagement level of the employees as a whole. To calculate this figure, you need the percentage engagement level of each employee, so how is this worked out? How can you be sure that the formula used applies equally well to all employees?