Understand employee engagement: What and how should you measure?

Nov 18, 2022
Nov 18, 2022 Marcin Nowak

What do the Japanese employees pretending to fall asleep on the job have in common with professional boxers who avoid hitting the prohibited areas of their opponents? Their behavior is a result of how their actions are judged.

The founder of the SFA school of modern classical fencing where I trained, had a saying that “the rules of refereeing define the tactics of combat.” I have become very fond of this saying, and I consider it an incredibly versatile principle that applies to various aspects of our lives, our professional lives included.

If an action effective in a real fight disqualified you in a competition, you obviously would try to avoid it – unless you are Andrew Golota (a former Polish professional boxer). If even an absurd action brings you an apparent benefit, such as being perceived better at work, you will perform it. Among Japanese employees, in a culture that appreciates the effort invested in work, an employee sleeping at their workstation signifies someone who has worked so hard and for so long that they have finally succumbed to fatigue. And this is considered something positive – a manifestation of an attitude that deserves praise. Consequently, there have been cases where employees pretended to sleep while at work to “earn” such praise and respect. This situation provides a fantastic example of how damaging badly calibrated measurement criteria can be. 

More expensive equals better?

So how do you measure employee engagement, and why do managers get it wrong on so many occasions? What is the best way of gauging engagement when the concept of quiet quitting, which seems to be in full contradiction to engagement, has taken center stage?

Our brain is geared towards simplicity. Very often, when we have trouble assessing things that are intricate, complicated or perhaps just new, we choose an associated but simpler construct based on which we appraise the “more difficult” fragment of reality. This is why heuristics such as “more expensive equals better” continue to prevail.

An accurate and thorough assessment of the work performed by another person is no easy task. Evaluating the degree to which someone engages in their work is even more challenging. The aspects of other persons’ intrinsic motivators remain, at the very least, not fully accessible to us, we observe other peoples’ actions only to a limited degree, and the effectiveness is also uneven and susceptible to many external variables. So how do you judge whether someone is making an effort and putting a lot of heart into what they do? What is the proof that someone actually “cares”? 

With reliable evaluation proving difficult, we are often left with the so-called “artifacts” as assessment criteria. “He stays after hours,” “she always replies immediately,” “he sat in the office all Saturday,” “she’s on leave but continues to be on call,” “first to arrive, last to leave.” We choose something that, in our opinion, demonstrates commitment, while in actual fact, it does no such thing, let alone validate the effectiveness of actions.

The changes made to Twitter following Elon Musk’s purchase of the platform provide quite an interesting backdrop to the discussion of evaluation mechanisms. Photos of employees sleeping in the office intermix with opinions, data, and articles on the pointlessness and counterproductivity of such behavior. The hackneyed slogans such as “this is the only way to create brilliant products” collide with statements such as those given by one of the chief engineers involved in the development of the iPhone (which, to be honest, is quite a successful product) that he and no one on his team ever had to sleep in the office, and the iPhone somehow came into existence. 

What do you really think about sleeping at the office desk?

It needs to be made clear – judging the engagement of employees based on overtime or out-of-hours responsiveness is a mistake. Particularly at a time when employees are turning away from managers who demand such solutions.

Other mistakes managers often make in this area include the lack of clearly defined expectations and feedback in regard to such behavior, in addition to their own work-related habits and inadequate communication patterns. Let’s be honest about the degree to which our perception of our team members is influenced by the lateness of their response to our email sent in the evening. Undeniably, these things have an effect. But do we react in such a situation and, if so, how? Knowing full well the negative and counterproductive consequences of prolonged overwork and stress, do we give feedback and ask our team members to modify their behavior? Do we make an effort to avoid publicly praising such behavior in a group? When thanking for the completed work, do we focus on the results of the actions, or do we emphasize the external factors, namely, “he sat all night to get it finished”? 

There is a lot of talk about quiet quitting, with attempts being made to pinpoint the concept’s origins and exact meaning. Having said that, Gen Z has long been deemed a generation that refuses to accept the cult of work. And since, according to Parag Khanna, Gen Z will be the most numerous generation in human history (including the generations to come), it is probably worthwhile for managers to have a good understanding of its motivation.

So what should be measured and how? 

Now that we have rejected erroneous assessment methods resulting from heuristics, where should we turn? Keeping track of the HR industry, we see further dimensions emerging – first, it was engagement, followed by belonging or thriving (a new criterion recently employed by Microsoft). However, the tools measuring these criteria most often refer to the satisfaction of employees with their organization and the system in which it operates. By way of example, Microsoft uses questionnaires that measure sub-criteria such as being ‘energized’ and ’empowered’ in ‘meaningful work’ to determine the employee’s score on the ‘thriving’ scale. When we go deeper, we see a search for answers to questions such as how the employee assesses communication, cooperation, management style, trust, the validity of actions and decisions, or respect shown to superiors. All things considered, these are fairly universal questions by which we measure the quality of the functioning and management of the entire organization. I am, by no means, questioning the need to obtain this type of information. Such data is very important and shows, for example, which areas the company can be satisfied with and which aspects still require work.

However, I would be contrary and ask a completely different question. Isn’t appropriate goal-setting the most important thing for measuring engagement? After all, isn’t it the case that if we want to evaluate something, we first need to understand what leads to it and what the result is supposed to be? 

In my opinion, this is where its most relevant part can be found. Unfortunately, it is also very challenging and demanding. Adequate planning, setting ambitious yet realistic goals, using them to model the team effectively, evolving these goals and aligning them with the development goals of individual people – these are all very complex tasks that make up the structure of the objectives, which allow consequences and commitment to be measured. They require managers to invest time and employ established knowledge about team members, their talents, handicaps, career plans, and working conditions. However, it is thanks to appropriate goal-setting and then acting on these objectives, appreciating and promoting them in agreement with the level of their performance, that we have a genuine influence on the behavior of the team and its effectiveness. We won’t achieve this by means of external symptoms that may be illusory, such as replying to emails after 10 pm or working on weekends – to use a figurative example – or otherwise being enthusiastic and opting for active participation. 

Such a stance might be considered much less exciting than the concept of belonging or thriving, but in my opinion, the measure of engagement is nothing more than the evaluation of appropriately set goals. 

Read more:

Sign up to our newsletter to stay up to date!

, , ,