HR has been measuring the wrong thing for years

Tom Robinson tells us why HR measuring the wrong thing has to stop!

Engagement is a hot topic, and it’s not going away any time soon. Gallup’s oft-quoted 2013 ‘State of the Global Workplace’ report states that only 13% of the global workforce is ‘actively engaged’ at work. They claim 63% of workers are disengaged and another 24% are ‘actively disengaged’, being ‘unhappy and unproductive at work and liable to spread negativity to co-workers’.

Moreover, they claim that if we were to magically fix this engagement crisis, then our organisations could be 22% more profitable. It’s therefore something that could be worth many BILLIONS to the world’s GDP. That’s huge! It could literally transform the world as we know it.

Unfortunately, it’s all complete and utter rubbish.

Can you honestly say to yourself that in the experiences you have of dealing with people while ordering food, checking into flights, ringing your bank or getting a hair cut – that more than four fifths of them are actively disengaged?

In my experience of talking to many thousands of people from a variety of industries, this doesn’t square. This means that we may be drawing the wrong conclusions from the data, measuring the wrong thing, or measuring the right thing but in the wrong way.

Three main arguments show otherwise:

First, correlation does not equal causation.

The meta-conclusion of Gallup’s research (and many studies since) state the fact that ‘happy employees create profitable companies’. Makes sense, right? Or at the very least, the conclusion is that the organisations that are among the highest quartiles on Gallup’s G12 metrics tend to be 22% more profitable than the lowest ones.

This can be attributed to the ‘cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy; in that just because X and Y are connected, it doesn’t necessarily mean that X was because of Y. Just because the cockerel crows at sunrise, it doesn’t mean he causes the sun to come up.

In the same way, just because many of the team might have ‘a best friend at work’ (question 10) or that ‘someone seems to care about them at work’ (question 5), that doesn’t mean that these are the driver of the increase in the share price.

In fact, the opposite might be true! Favourable market conditions, a great product or lack of competition might be producing a successful, profitable organisation, which in turn make people feel valued and engaged.

I’m not saying that there’s no cause at all here, or I wouldn’t be in the business of organisational development and culture change myself! However, it’s a bit naïve to think that your engagement scores going from a 76 to an 81 will create a meaningful improvement in real-world business outcomes.  

Sentiment is near-useless.

If you ask their teams about their feelings and opinions – especially ones about themselves – you’re running the risk of basing tens of thousands of pounds of investments on OD initiatives on some really shaky data.

Even asking a question like ‘are my colleagues committed to doing quality work’ might depend on whether Dave from accounts has mucked up again, or Ali from Projects hasn’t replied to your email request in four days, even though you just know he’s read it. Sentiments change with the wind. On integrity tests, people lie.

Even the stalwart of engagement surveys and ENPS (employment net promoter score) metrics, ‘would you recommend AcmeCorp to your friends / family as a good place to work?’ could depend on a) whether the dishwasher is still broken, b) if they got their bonus this quarter, or c) whether their friends and family are actually looking for a job.

Unfortunately, in the world of ‘Evidence Based HR’, feelings don’t count for much. Just because you believe the world is flat, it doesn’t make it true – in the same way that you might not believe you’re ‘fairly paid for the work you do’, or that you don’t believe that ‘your opinions count at work’.

Better than this, we need to base expensive HR decisions on observable behaviours, peer-analysis, tangible results and real data.  

Engagement is a really silly thing to measure.

Apart from being a completely made up term, it’s an outcome. It’s the thing you get if you’ve made a friction-free place to work, where people are effective and enjoy their work. If your workplace culture is the input; then engagement is the output.

Surely, then, it makes more sense to focus on what’s causing the issues? Not whether you ‘received praise in the last seven days’, but whether ‘your organisation truly values your efforts’? Not whether your ‘manager conducts regular one-to-ones with you’, but what are the ‘worst behaviours your manager lets people get away with at work’?

Focusing on the underlying behavioural issues is a far more effective way of diagnosing and solving the resultant effects of engagement. It’s the difference between a doctor focusing on curing a headache, or the thing that’s causing the headache.

If your culture has a symptom – such as lack of collaboration, poor feedback, performance issues or inability to keep top talent – then there’s likely a deeper issue at work. Surely, efforts are best spent in understanding not only the symptoms – but what’s causing them.

The solution can then be tailored to get to the heart of the issue, without wasting money on the medicine that doesn’t fix the problem.

Perhaps it’s because engagement scores are so quantifiable that they’ve gained popularity in recent years. Maybe they fit into the Ulrich model of showing that HR provides value to the business – rather than actually doing the hard work of aligning business and HR strategy.

Engagement surveys have become reassuring, comforting barometers of organisational health, rather than an effective diagnosis of workplace issues.  Maybe it’s time for a change?


About the author

Tom Robinson is the Managing Director of Talent Tomorrow. You can contact Tom on Twitter @Talent_Tom


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