Trying to Measure Employee Engagement? Don’t Bother!

Go and look at the survey tools offered by the employee engagement industry, and everywhere you’ll see slogans about measuring engagement, and promises of wonderful things happening through “proven” measurement techniques. But hidden behind these extravagant and often outlandish claims are things these companies don’t bother to tell you, and the reason they don’t tell you these things is because their claims seem far less attractive once you’re privy to this knowledge. It’s not in their interests to tell you the whole truth – but I’m going to. Here’s the bottom line: you can’t measure employee engagement. At least, there is no universally recognised measurement, because there is no universally agreed definition for what engagement actually is. Every survey company uses its own definition for what engagement is, and many of those definitions are not easily convertible to numbers. For example, a common trope is that employees are engaged if “they’re prepared to go the extra mile”. But what does that mean, in terms of measurable characteristics? The number of hours of unpaid overtime they put in? The level of overall customer satisfaction? The number of days employees turn up to work when they’re ill? Don’t forget the saying that “not everything that matters can be counted, and not everything that can be counted matters.” Frankly, definitions like “going the extra mile” sound good but are in reality pretty useless. Even with better definitions, what is actually happening when survey companies try to quantify engagement is that they pick a bunch of metrics which represent either precursors of engagement, or (more rarely) outcomes from engagement. They aren’t measuring engagement itself, but proxies for engagement. This isn’t a bad thing, but to claim otherwise is at best misleading. Another thing survey companies don’t bother pointing out is that their methodologies and metrics are more than likely based on statistical reasoning. They point to huge question banks, with hundreds or thousands of customers, and thousands or millions of data points, and assert that this makes their techniques somehow better. But what they’re doing is working out a set of metrics that apply best to the average company. Is your company average? No, I didn’t think it would be. Your business is unique, your people are unique, and your culture is unique … one size definitely does not fit all. How can you be sure that somebody else’s definition of engagement will work for you? The simple answer is that you can’t be sure. So, don’t take their word for it: instead, ask the one set of people who do know what engagement in your company looks like, namely your employees. They are the only people who can answer this question, because they are the ones that are engaged (or possibly disengaged). If you don’t know what factors govern their individual levels of engagement, you’re on a hiding to nothing. It’s important to remember that employees are people, with their own personal views, motivations, circumstances and talents, and that not only could the definition of engagement be different for each and every one of them, but that only they can tell you what engagement means to them as individuals. Furthermore, their views and priorities will change over time as they get older and their life circumstances change, as the company grows, shrinks or changes structure, and as their experience of life at work hits peaks and troughs. If you’re looking at (or retaining) a survey provider that doesn’t take all these factors into account (and, it has to be said, very few do), you may well benefit from rethinking your survey strategy, knowing what you now know.

Find out how always-on employee engagement and continuous employee feedback can help your company culture, productivity and the company bottom line by emailing, calling +44 (0) 1223 750 251 (Europe) or+1 646 760 9323 (US) or visiting

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