4 Key Steps for Creating Employee Engagement

How do you create employee engagement? It’s deceptively simple.

  1. Define engagement.
  2. Design your approach; make sure it is multi-tiered.
  3. Find a qualified partner/vendor.
  4. Act.

What is employee engagement?

Engaged employees are loyal to their organization, demonstrate initiative, passion and mastery in their job. The dictionary defines engagement as commitment, whether we are using engagement to refer to a social engagement, an engagement to be married or an individual who is engaged in their work. Commitment is an element of loyalty but I suggest that loyalty, particularly as it relates to employee engagement, is much more than that; it’s not just commitment for the sake of “doing the right thing” but commitment as a result of enjoying something and believing in something passionately. That, to me, is the essence of employee engagement.

You’ll notice that I speak to “my” definition of engagement rather than proposing a standard definition. This is an important distinction. Any organization or manager that is pursuing employee engagement MUST start with defining engagement for themselves – what does an engaged employee look like FOR YOU. Some organizations may feel that productivity is a critical behavior, where others are more focused on job mastery as a measure of engagement. Regardless, defining engagement before measuring engagement is important – how you define engagement will shape your success measures for the questionnaire. The success measures direct the action plans – so without the right measures of success, you may not be making change where it has the most impact.

Some survey vendors argue that they have fully researched engagement and propose a standard set of success measures. There’s little doubt that if they are well researched, you’ll likely achieve some success by using standard questions. But I propose customization is the way to go – what a technology company wants to achieve, and how they need to achieve it, will not likely be the same as the goals of an advertising firm. As a result, employee engagement at each of these organizations will look very different. To have the largest impact through an employee engagement initiative, take the time to define what success looks like.

A couple of other definitions

A few other key terms that warrant definition include engagement indicators and engagement drivers. Engagement indicators are those behaviours you have chosen to define engagement for you – pride, loyalty, likelihood to recommend, productivity, etc. Engagement drivers are those activities that influence or “drive” these engagement indicators. This might include compensation, management performance, career opportunities, etc.

Action 1: Define engagement.

Two Truths About Engagement

Before we discuss how to measure employee engagement, there are two truths that provide context to many of the suggestions put forward here.

  1. First, it’s a fact that we are each individually influenced by different engagement drivers. While we share common drivers with others, each of our lists are slightly different and the order of importance to each of these items will vary. So I, like many others, might be driven by manager integrity’ but someone who shares this value may also care a great deal about compensation, where that is almost an irrelevant engagement driver for me.  
  2. Second, when working to improve engagement, organizations don’t set out to define each and every employee’s engagement drivers.

These seem like opposing truths, but they don’t have to be. You can have the most impact on employee engagement by first, acknowledging to yourself and to your staff that this is the reality we live in. Second, you create a multi-tiered system to address engagement. A successful engagement initiative isn’t just run from the top, or from the bottom layer of management. Each layer has a unique responsibility in creating and supporting an engaged workforce.

At the senior level, identify those engagement drivers that employees have in common at your organization. Select the top two or three to address. But if we stop there we’re not achieving the kind of impact that will create sustainable change.

Next, investigate drivers for different demographic groups that are important to your organization – this might include business units, gender or tenure. I suggest you only select two or three demographic groups upon which to build additional sets of drivers, otherwise the amount of data becomes unmanageable.

Finally, managers need to identify engagement drivers at the individual level within their teams.

This exercise is not so much about science and measurement although there are personality assessments that will help – this is about good management.

It’s about managers paying attention to what employees on their team care about, what motivates them, what drives them to perform. And it’s about acknowledging that this will be a little different for each member of the team. Joe has a busy family life and so work-life balance is important to him. Sally is very career driven and is more focused on development opportunities. But both employees want a manager that they can relate to.

Action 2: Design a multi-tiered approach to measuring and acting on engagement drivers.

employee engagement

The Science of Measuring Engagement

Okay, so you’ve completed Jobs 1 and 2. How do you choose a partner to work with to measure engagement?

Here’s the ugly truth – you need to understand the science to some degree to be able to make an informed decision about who to work with.

I would recommend, wherever possible, that you engage a statistician to help you assess the viability of any vendor in the employee engagement field. It’s worth the investment because frankly, if the science isn’t right, your engagement measurement is no better than guessing. In fact, it’s worse because your instincts are probably more accurate than bad science.

If you do not have the luxury of engaging a statistician to help you with the selection of a partner, here are some questions you can ask:

What type of analysis is performed to generate the drivers of engagement?

If correlation analysis comes up, move on to another partner – correlation does not mean cause and effect. In other words, just because two things happen at the same time does not mean that one causes (or drives) the other. You should be looking for multiple forms of influence modelling, including regression analysis.

If the vendor simply asks importance and does not measure for drivers of engagement, again, move on to another partner. Asking importance DOES NOT accurately measure drivers of engagement. The things that drive us are not typically top of mind and are difficult for us to manually quantify.

Who performs this analysis?

For the most accurate results, a qualified statistician should be involved. As my statistician friends tell me, the best and most reliable models are the result of both art and science – they are not simply generated from a computer program.

What sample size is necessary to create a reliable model?

While there is no concrete answer for this question, you are looking for a vendor who will only provide you with models that are reliable; most of the tim,e a minimum of 100 or more responses are required to reach this reliability. In fact, often it can be much higher, depending on how varied the demographics are within the sample set.

Now that we’ve established how important the science is when selecting a partner to work with, let’s quickly review a few other important considerations.

How important is the ability to customize your question set?

It is cheaper and quicker to work with vendors who provide a standard question set. However, in my opinion, you’ll have significantly more impact on engagement when you select questions that are suited for YOUR environment, and are phrased in a way that is relatable for YOUR employees. Employees at a bank are likely more comfortable with corporate “speak” where creative folks will better relate to informal language. If you haven’t asked the right questions, in the right way, the best statistics in the world are not going to produce the answers you need. Don’t underestimate the importance of the tool you are using to measure engagement.

Where does benchmarking fit in?

I’ve come across a wide variety of opinions on whether to benchmark your results against other organizations. Ultimately, the question to ask yourself is how will the information help you make positive, high impact change. Personally, I have found that in most circumstances, benchmarking has minimal impact – what matters most is how you measure against the targets you set for your organization. Customizing your tool is far more valuable than the ability to compare your performance to others.

What ratings scale is best?

The “agree” scale [1] seems to be the most commonly used today, probably because it’s easier to craft questions to correspond with this scale. I prefer the “expectations” scale [2] myself as I feel it best represents what we’re most often trying to measure – does the organization meet your expectations or not. The words you choose to use, like the phrasing of the questions, should mean something to you and your employees – choose a scale that will be easily understood and actionable.

When thinking about the scale, it’s also critical to create a fully anchored scale, meaning a scale where each number on the scale has a corresponding word associated with it. A fully anchored scale ensures more accurate results as it is easier to understand what a “meets expectations” rating means vs. a “3” (for both the rater and the interpretation of the ratings).

Once you have selected the words that make the most sense for your scale, this usually answers the question that often follows – how big a scale should I use (5 point, 7, 10, etc.). The words you’ve chosen should help dictate a range that makes sense – for example, sometimes it’s not possible to create a seven point scale without using language that’s confusing and inaccurate. Try, as much as possible, to create an equal distance between each point on the scale – meaning that the difference in opinion between strongly disagree and disagree should be about the same as that between disagree and not sure (or whatever midpoint you select).

There is a great deal of debate about whether there should be a “midpoint” or not – some feel that employees often default to the midpoint if one is offered. I don’t have a strong feeling on this point one way or the other – get the right words, with the right distance between them and the issue of midpoint should be redundant.

Action 3: Create the best tool you can and use only reliable science you can trust.

You’ve Got the Results – Now What?

While I’ve said earlier that Job 1 is defining engagement, this is in fact 1b. 1a is closely linked to Job 4 – gain commitment from all levels of management to implementing the results. NEVER conduct a survey without this commitment – otherwise employees lose faith in the system.

Assuming you have this commitment, and the survey results are in, where do you go from here?

There is no one correct way to proceed but here are some tips to ensuring success at this stage:

Communicate early and often.

It’s best to ensure you first communication is the day after the survey closes, outlining next steps. Your next communication should include some specific results – you may need some time to distill and discuss with senior management, but in the meantime you can be sending out teasers. If you keep employee interest alive, they will be more “engaged” when you roll out the official results.

It’s most effective when you can deliver results in person – whether it be from corporate or through management. What’s nice about corporate head office delivering the results is consistency of messaging. It also sends the message that employee engagement is important.

Remember that multi-tiered approach?

The statistics/modelling approach should be multi-tiered but so should the roll out of information. The messaging for senior management is necessarily different than what employees need to hear. And the actions that are crafted are different by groups as well – senior management will focus on corporate wide initiatives, departments will be focused on action items that impact them directly, HR is best equipped to address specific demographical issues such as gender differences or equity.

Ideally, communication is a mix of formal and informal and is delivered from various sources, with varying intentions.

Equip management.

Your front line managers have a significant opportunity to impact employee engagement, either positively or negatively – they interact with employees directly, every day. To ensure the impact is a positive one, equip them with the tools they need to make positive change. This means…

  • providing managers with the knowledge they need, through communication and training. Walk them through the detailed results of the survey, but more than that, be sure they understand what is important and what is not. And ensure they have the skills needed to move forward. Identify the skill gaps and create development plans where needed. All the best corporate initiatives will fall flat if your front line managers are not able or willing to do their part.
  • providing the resources managers need to support an engaged workforce. This might be as straight forward as physical tools, or it might be access to information.
  • providing the time to make change. Don’t rush to the next survey – it can be an exercise in frustration for the managers if they have not had the time to act on previous information, yet are held accountable for the results of the survey.

Action 4. Make change happen – without action, the results are meaningless.

1. The agree scale typically consists of words such as Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Neither Agree Nor Disagree, Agree, Strongly Agree

2. An example of an expectations scale is: Significantly Below, Below, Meets, Above, Significantly Above.

Annette Ainsbury

Annette graduated with a BA in English from the University of Toronto. She spent the first dozen+ years of her career in the field of business consulting, including employee and customer measurement. She then moved to HR with a couple of different firms, working in the areas of employee engagement, project management, succession planning and training & development.

2 thoughts on “4 Key Steps for Creating Employee Engagement

  1. Edwin Tang says: January 27, 2017 at 10:35 pm

    Good insight for the understanding of employee engagement. Especially good points are the commitment from management of all levels and to define the suitable meaning of engagement.

    1. Emily Price says: January 30, 2017 at 11:05 am

      Cheers Edwin! We always love hearing our readers feedback 🙂

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