The Only True Measure of Employee Engagement

by | Jun 26, 2017 | approachable leadership

Sometimes Your Unhappy Employees Are The Most Engaged.

Think employee engagement just means making employees happy? Nope. Often your unhappy employees are your most engaged ones. Don’t believe me? I’ve got a quick story that might change your mind.

This may come as a surprise to those of you who don’t know me personally, but I haven’t always been the picture of health and wellness that I am today (#irony). I somehow convinced an Ironwoman triathlete to take me on as her lifetime project (#oppositesattract).

Years ago Janet somehow convinced me we should do an “adventure race” together. On the fateful morning of the race Janet went to check us in while all 250 pounds of me sat in the truck wondering what I had done. She quickly returned with the race packet. Inside was the jerseys we had to wear. I watched as she sheepishly pulled my jersey out of the bag and immediately noticed two things:

  1. My jersey was about 3 sizes too small; and
  2. It was a HALF-SHIRT (think Chris Farley’s “fat guy in a little coat” and you’ll get the picture).

Needless to say, I was not happy. But we went on to compete in a two hour race. Well, a two hour race for us (Janet would have finished in under an hour).

The Low-Light (and the Triumph)

The low-light of this day full of low-lights was the blow-up kayak event. Blow-up kayaks are unstable and quite cramped. Especially when the person in the back of the kayak outweighs the person in the front by more than 100 pounds. My legs quickly started falling asleep. Every time I tried to adjust, the kayak took on water, which I would then try to bail out using a small water bottle. This was hilarious to everyone but me.

I decided about halfway through the kayak event that the best way to preserve my marriage was to quit speaking to Janet. When we finally made it back to shore we struggled to dump what felt like 75 gallons of water from the kayak. Janet turned to me and whispered, “We can quit if you want to.” In one of my less approachable moments as a husband I said (OK, I yelled), “We are finishing this fudging race!” Except, like Ralphie, I didn’t say fudge.

But here’s the thing. While I was the slowest, fattest and angriest person on the race course that day I was, without a doubt, the most engaged. If a pack of wild coyotes came between me and that finish line I would have tore right through them. And we did finish, to the cheers (and some jeers) of… well, everyone else who showed up to the race that day.

The Problem with Measuring Employee Engagement

I’m not suggesting you should motivate your team by piling them into your version of a tiny blow-up kayak. But the old adage isn’t necessarily true. Happy employees are not the key to employee engagement. We often get this completely backwards, thinking our job is to be the Chief Happiness Officer of our company. Happiness and satisfaction are often the opposite of employee engagement.

Think about yourself for a second. Do you consider yourself an engaged employee? Okay, then are you always happy? Or do you get frustrated that things aren’t going as well as you know they could? Upset when you see the company or your team settling or not living up to its potential?

So happiness is a poor measure of engagement. Here’s some more bad news. Your “engagement survey” isn’t really measuring employee engagement either. Sure, every survey company out there (including mine) offers an engagement index. But these all measure work conditions that should lead to employee engagement (or disengagement).

The Only True Measure of Employee Engagement

Frustrated or unhappy employees are sometimes disengaged. But often the opposite is true. It depends on why the person is frustrated or unhappy.

One recent article suggests using the “net promoter” score, or whether an employee is likely to refer someone to work or do business with the company. We’ve been measuring net promoter in our surveys for many years now. I like this measure over others because it is a solid predictor of actual behavior. But even this isn’t actually measuring employee engagement. Likelihood to promote is just another precursor to engagement.

Are You Making Diamonds or Coal?

Sometimes friction and high pressure leads to diamonds. Other times you end up with coal (or just ground up dirt). How do you know if you’re creating diamonds or coal? How can you tell if you’re employees are actually engaged?

There is only one way to get a true sense of how engaged your team members are. You must focus on observable behavior. What do they choose to do to help out their teammates? Do they volunteer to help others when they don’t have to? Are they always looking for ways to make things smoother, even outside of their normal job?

That’s the true measure of employee engagement. It’s called Organizational Citizenship Behavior (OCB). And I think it is the best observable way to spot engagement.

Professor Dennis Organ originally defined OCB as, “individual behavior that is discretionary, not directly or explicitly recognized by the formal reward system, and that in the aggregate promotes the effective functioning of the organization.” OCB has 3 critical components:

  1. They are discretionary (not part of the job description) and voluntary or chosen by the employee;
  2. They go above and beyond the requirements of the job (they aren’t just performing your job above expectations); and
  3. They contribute to the overall effectiveness of the organization.

How do you get people to engage in OCB? I thought you’d never ask 🙂

Next week we’ll cover 5 steps (including our “Win, Know, Show” Model) you can use to increase Organizational Citizenship among your teammates.

Have you ever been frustrated or angry and engaged? Do you ever mistake frustration of a teammate as a sign of poor engagement? How much organizational citizenship behavior do you notice among your teammates?