Do engagement surveys tell the whole story?

Delving deeper into the metrics behind engagement suggests there are a greater range of factors at play, says Dr Amy Armstrong

We know there is a strong correlation between engagement and organisational performance, with companies with top quartile engagement scores reporting 40 per cent lower staff turnover, 12 per cent higher customer advocacy and twice the annual net profit compared to companies with poor engagement scores, according to research from Engage for Success. Yet we are still not getting engagement right. 

Gallup’s State of the Global Workforce Report shows that worldwide only 13 per cent of people across 142 countries report being engaged in their work, with actively disengaged workers outnumbering engaged workers by a ratio of two to one. The UK has the highest proportion of actively disengaged workers in Europe, and they are the most damaging. These are the people who are vocal about their unhappiness, experience higher rates of absenteeism and monopolise managers’ time. So if we are able to understand why engagement levels are so low and figure out what can be done about it, we could potentially transform the world of work.

The statistics quoted above are based on engagement metrics, but how can we know if engagement surveys actually measure engagement? The engagement survey industry has burgeoned in the past decade, with hundreds of providers now touting their wares to organisations of all shapes and sizes. 

The annual engagement survey, some argue, is now outdated given the dynamic and ever-changing work environment, and despite many businesses turning to more regular ‘pulse survey’ approaches, it has been reported that 29 per cent of employees think engagement surveys are waste of time, and worryingly, 80 per cent do not believe their employer will do anything as a result. Yet many companies rely heavily on these metrics as the barometer for company engagement, and having some statistics to hand may provide comfort to HR directors as they table the topic in the boardroom. 

Our recent Ashridge-Hult research suggests there are ‘shades of grey’ when it comes to engagement, which challenges the traditional binary notions of engagement or disengagement presented in engagement surveys. In what we believe to be the largest study of team engagement to date, we compared 28 work teams across seven sectors, from which a more complex and nuanced picture was revealed. For example, of the teams that were initially selected by their organisations as being highly engaged, according to their consistently high engagement scores, we found that 14 per cent of them were in fact ‘satisfied’ and a further 29 per cent were ‘pseudo-engaged’. 

Satisfied or ‘contented’ teams, as labelled in our study, are those in a state of complacency, where team members lack proactivity and dynamism and see their work as just a means to an end. Pseudo-engaged teams are those who present an illusion of engagement – that is to say, in the eyes of their organisation, and according to their engagement scores, they appear highly engaged, however when we lift the lid on these teams, a range of dysfunctions are apparent. 

Organisations may be missing a trick if they fail to take a more granular approach to engagement, which is often more qualitative than quantitative. It is about asking, listening and acting regularly and from the ground up. 

We would caution organisations which use engagement measures to do so circumspectly, since they may not present the whole story when it comes to team engagement.

Dr Amy Armstrong is faculty and lead researcher at Ashridge at Hult International Business School