What does ‘engagement’ really mean in the communications world?

In the communications biz, we like to throw the word “engagement” around a lot. We’re  always trying to figure out if our workforce is “highly engaged,” or “somewhat engaged” or “disengaged” or some other kind of engaged.

But the problem that none of the high-priced engagement consultants want to admit is, it’s really, really hard to tell if an employee is engaged in his work, and in the company as a whole.

Supposedly, these consultants, like Gallup, have ways of telling. They do intensive surveys, and ask magic questions (such as, “Do you have a best friend at work?” and “Do you feel your coworkers do great work?”) that will reveal the level of someone’s engagement.

Which is all bullshit, of course. Because you can’t tell anything from a survey like that. Here’s an example:

Let’s say that you are a male employee in a manufacturing environment. And let’s say that you are having a torrid sex affair with a female coworker.

It’s a scenario everybody should be allowed to experience once in their lives: sex at work!

And you have all kinds of cool code words and phrases with your coworker/lover.

For instance, if you say: “I’m going to get a bagel. Do you want one?” It really means:

“Grab the grease gun and go wait for me in the janitor’s closet.”

And, “Where are you going for lunch?” really means:

“Go in the tool shed and take off everything except your hard hat and your boots.”

And all kinds of cool stuff like that.

So you’re having sex two or three times a day, while you’re supposed to be working? And why can you do that? Because you’re not really doing any work! In addition to screwing your coworker, you’re also screwing the pooch on any one of a number of projects.

And how can you get away with this? Because your boss doesn’t give a shit! He’s been on the job forever, and he’s just treading water until retirement. On top of that, he’s a raging alcoholic who suffers from back-breaking, mind-crushing hangovers every morning, up until 11:30, when he goes to lunch for two hours and drinks seven beers.

Then, in the afternoon, he sits at his computer and plays with the stock market.

Now, let’s say you’re that employee who is having sex on the job rather than working. And now, the annual “Engagement Survey” comes in. You’ve got to answer all these questions about your boss.

What would you do? I know what I would do . . . I’d give the son of a bitch the highest ratings I possibly could, that’s what! Because if I grade him low, they’re going to make him actually work! And I don’t want that!

If you think this is unrealistic, you’ve never heard of the “Mark Five to Survive” mentality. I first heard about it when I was doing some focus groups for a large company that did this kind of engagement survey every year. In the group, I asked the participants about it.

“Oh, yeah,” said one woman. “We call that the ‘write five to survive’ survey.”

“What do you mean by that?” I asked, in my best focus-group-moderator voice.

“It means if you just give the manager all fives across the board, they’ll leave you alone,” she told me. “If you give him lower ratings, they’re going to start messing with you.”

Of course they are! Who wants someone from corporate to come nosing around, trying to fix your work group when it isn’t broken to begin with?

That’s why I’m so suspicious of those engagement surveys.

Communicators, where do you stand? Do you think it’s worth it to spend the tens of thousands of dollars that some companies spend to try and measure “engagement?” If so, why? If not, why not?

11 responses to What does ‘engagement’ really mean in the communications world?

  1. Priya Bates

    I agree Steve. I’ve been talking lately about 4P – Let’s measure PERFORMANCE (company results) based on actual delivery; PARTICIPATION (what do you want employees to do…it won’t include sex…unless you worked in a related industry); PROMOTION (What are employees saying in live and social networks . Are programs being built to encourage promotion); and PRIDE (harder to measure but an important consideration in program and message creation). My team used to hate surveys and the one time they tried to be honest about an issue (or minor non-issue), HR workshopped it to death and they told me that they marked it higher the next time so they wouldn’t be put through that again.

    • Steve Crescenzo Post Author

      Love the 4 Ps, Priya! Great approach, and looking at the right things.

  2. Jackie Sargent

    Nailed it!!! I am really starting to get down to the basics – what does success look like? This translates to “what does an engaged employee look like?” People smarter than me have already made that determination: basically, they’re high-performing employees who accept additional work (without being a martyr about it!), stays late when necessary, supports organization’s mission, vision, values, helps others, proactive, speaks up, participates in training opportunities, etc. etc. etc.

    In short: this is information that every supervisor has about each individual that reports to him or her. What does a corporate-wide engagement survey tell you? Nothing.

    So where are the gaps? Are we not having the right questions on our performance appraisals? Can we not extrapolate certain data from those appraisals that will help us understand the engagement level in our organization?

    I totally get that there are flaws in that system as well, particularly if your supervisor hates you or is riding it out until retirement, but it seems that it might be more accurate that the employee that reports high engagement when in fact he/she is just highly engaged in an affair with a fellow co-worker. And certainly cheaper and less painful than an annual engagement survey …

    My 2 cents, which means nothing in U.S. dollars. In fact, I should be paying you for offering my opinion.

    • Priya Bates

      Agree with most of your comments except one. How about engaged employees simply do their jobs? Imagine if we put efforts toward 75% or 100% of employees delivering what they say they’ll deliver. High potential programs reward the 10% above and beyonders. ..engagement should be about the entire workforce and collaborative efforts.

  3. Morgan Quist

    Thought-provoking and funny. Thanks Steve! Formal, occasional surveys aren’t effective. However, I’m not ready to give up trying to measure engagement. It’s good to assess if the right people are in the right jobs – using their strengths, energized by what they’re doing, wanting to learn more. What about using the manager’s observations and the results of their work?

  4. Steve Crescenzo Post Author

    Jackie and Morgan:

    I think you are both on track. I KNOW there is a way to gauge employee engagement. I just don’t think a canned survey with the same 12 questions applied to every company no matter what they do is effective. But YES, we should not give up on measuring engagement, and we should also be focusing on what communicators can do to help. There ARE things we can do, and we need to focus on those things.

    • Michael Runzler

      I read something similar once about employee surveys that ask whether you’re satisfied with your pay, or if it’s competitive. What numbskull would say “yes” to that question? Say “yes” and you’re saying adios to any hope for a raise. The astute response is “No,” or “Hell no.” Otherwise everyone thinks you’re happy and will maintain the status quo. Of course, I would neither think of nor endorse such skullduggery. Just relaying what I’ve heard.

      • Steve Crescenzo Post Author

        LOL, Michael!! You’re so right. I see a LOT of surveys in my line of work, and am constantly amazed at the stupidity of some of the questions. And I’m also amazed by how many communicators ask questions that they have no influence over. The common knowledge is that employees hate taking surveys. I disagree. They hate taking STUPID surveys! A short, well-done survey that asks the right questions can be a powerful research tool that can reshape your communications. I don’t think most engagement surveys come anywhere near that.

  5. Russell Sleaper

    Hi Steve,

    I agree with you and I agree with Priya’s use of the four Ps.

    My main objection to surveys is that they seldom return decent data on WHY employees are disengaged. How about we suppose, as Priya suggests, engagement is not perfect when we find Performance and Participation are lacking? How about we determine what we can do to make employees sufficiently Proud to Promote the company? I can drop ten, twenty, thirty grand on that; I could get a return on the investment.

    Here’s the thing: how many people start a job disengaged? Even the ‘sexy’ fellow in your story probably started sufficiently ‘engaged’ to work hard for eight bearable hours. It seems to me that employees become disengaged for one of two reasons:

    • They weren’t a good fit for the employer in the first place, or
    • Something’s wrong with the way the company, or part of it, is managed

    If I accept this, I can look at why the hiring process has gone awry. I can get HR to talk to new employees over their first six months and discover the points of disengagement. I can hunt down the raging alcoholic bosses.

    I like to use an old tool to achieve these things: talking to people. (In large organizations that means phased projects, but not surveys).

    Thanks for a good read and all the best,

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