Are you managing for engagement or performance?

My four year old daughter recently took up playing her first team sport, soccer.  As any parent who has had a young child in soccer knows, it’s quite a spectacle to behold when you turn loose six youngsters on a soccer field.  They play three on three games, no score kept.  It’s all about teaching and getting the kids some experience playing on a team and learning about soccer.

Being someone who works with employee engagement for a living, I found some really interesting parallels between engagement and my daughter’s experience with soccer.  Primarily, I think she would qualify as a highly engaged soccer player.  She’s excited to be there and to be part of the team.  She gives a lot of energy and effort when she’s on the field.  She is very attentive to coaches and always does her best to do whatever they ask her to do.  She will play as much or as little as she’s asked.  She concerned about her teammates.  And, if you were to ask her, she would tell you how much she loves soccer and how fun it is to play with her team.  By almost any definition of engagement, she is highly engaged.

There’s only one problem.  Despite her high level of engagement, she’s not productive as a soccer player–not even a little bit.  While she’s now played in 4 soccer games, other than the uncontested kickoffs that follow a scored goal, she has kicked the ball once during actual game play.  She runs around with her teammates and is often near the ball, but she’s not terribly interested in actually kicking the ball to the goal or taking it away from an opposing player.  The good news is that she’s adorable, she’s nice to the kids on the other team, and she really has fun.  But, she’s not really playing soccer.

Much of the talk these days about employee engagement focuses on the happiness and satisfaction of employees.  We define it in terms like extra effort, passion for the company, and intent to stay(retention).  All important and valuable things, particularly if you are the employee.  But, where is the focus on results.

For years, we’ve been promised by HR and those with an engagement survey to sell that employee engagement is the gateway to company performance.

The story we’ve been told is that if we measure engagement, put a number to it and then increase that number every year, we will see a corresponding increase in company results.  But many organizations just aren’t finding that to be the case.

If you surveyed my daughter about her engagement relative to her experience with her soccer team, it would be off the charts (assuming she could read the survey).  She trusts her coach, loves her co-workers, enjoys the game, and feels good about the experience.  But, she’s not helping her team score goals.  Granted, the objective of 4 year old soccer isn’t to outscore your opponent, but I suspect you get the point.

Employee engagement isn’t about people feeling good about work and enjoying their experience, at least not when you run a for-profit business.  Employee engagement must first be about impacting and improving company performance.  Is your objective to get more effort out of your unproductive, but very happy, employees?  I hope not.

We need more productivity and performance out of employees at every level and in every situation.

The conversation about and practice of employee engagement needs to change.  It’s time to refocus our efforts on what our organizations really need: performance.

Employee engagement surveys, at the end of the day, are opinion surveys.

The good ones are designed to collect information that will help us better manage our organizations for results.  One of the ways we need to refocus is to realize that while engagement is an important thing, more important is to make sure we are engaging the right employees—those who are scoring our goals.  We need to use our engagement survey to ensure that our best and brightest talent is getting what they need to do their best work.

This begs the question, how do you know who you are listening to in your employee engagement or any other employee survey?

If you survey everyone and treat all votes as equal, how do you know whose opinions you are listening to and acting upon?  Are you hearing from your best or worst employees?

In order for the practice of engagement to become more powerful at driving results, we must begin to differentiate the opinions of our best employees from everyone else.  These are the most credible and important perspectives to capture.  Then, when we invest time and money in action plans, we can know that those plans are impacting the very people who more significantly affect our company’s performance.

While managing for employee engagement is a good thing, it’s a means to an end.  We cannot forget that without performance, we won’t have a company to employ people in the first place.  Engagement for the sake of engagement is wasted energy.  Focus on performance and use engagement as it was intended in the first place—as a tool to collect information that helps you drive better results.

 

Connect with Jason

Jason Lauritsen is a former human resources executive turned consultant and keynote speaker.  His company with partner Cy Wakeman, Bulletproof Talent, helps organizations to develop accountable leaders and employees who are bulletproof to their circumstances.  Their Reality-CheckTM employee engagement survey  is changing the way companies measure and manage employee engagement by introducing personal accountability into the process.

Jason is the co-author of the book, Social Gravity: Harnessing the Natural Laws of Relationships and is half of the dynamic and provocative speaking duo, Talent Anarchy.

He regularly blogs at www.jasonlauritsen.com and www.TalentAnarchy.com. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Jason Lauritsen is a former human resources executive turned consultant and keynote speaker. His company with partner Cy Wakeman, Bulletproof Talent, helps organizations to develop accountable leaders and employees who are bulletproof to their circumstances. Their Reality-CheckTM employee engagement survey is changing the way companies measure and manage employee engagement by introducing personal accountability into the process. Jason is the co-author of the book, Social Gravity: Harnessing the Natural Laws of Relationships and is half of the dynamic and provocative speaking duo, Talent Anarchy.

  • http://www.leadershipsuccessnow.com Alex Dail

    Your point is very valid, it’s not important that an employee is engaged at his or her work place. What is important is are the engaged in helping the company or organization they are working at be a success.

    One type of engagement that is unhealthy is when different parts of a business are at war with one another and are more interested in pay back than doing what is right for the company.

  • http://www.shiftandswitch.com Ted Coine

    I love this post Jason, as I’ve already shared with you. Here’s my thing with engagement / performance: it’s “and,” not “or.” Companies or managers that focus on either one without simultaneous attention to the other… that’s just dumb. Very, very common. But bad business.

    If every employee, from the new hire to the chairman, keeps the goals of the business firmly in mind at all times, and judges every action they take by that yardstick (“is this serving the purpose of our company?”), then great things can start to happen! I’m not so sure employees can do this if they dislike or (*gulp*) hate the company, though. So keeping the pulse of engagement isn’t a good ‘extra,’ it is absolutely essential to the success of the company. Not “or” – “and.”

    By the way: as a dad of two little girls myself, who has watched quite a few pee wee soccer games with delight, just a thought: why don’t we teach our kids to score from the very first practice game? Kids quickly figure out to keep score themselves even when the adults running their games don’t, and kids love to win, because they’re human. Scoring, improving, hopefully winning: all these essential aspects of sports makes our kids more engaged. Again, no either/or here.

    I’m not just a business heretic, I guess in many ways I’m both a parenting throwback and heretic as well.

  • http://www.BulletproofTalent.com Jason Lauritsen (@JasonLauritsen)

    Alex – Thanks for the comment. I don’t know that I agree that it’s not important that an employee be engaged, because engagement isn’t a bad thing. It’s just that when we are chasing engagement for the sake of engagement, I think we have the potential to do as much harm as good to our organizations. We need to understand that without a focus on performance, we are spinning our wheels.

    Ted – I agree that it’s a “both” thing. My issue isn’t with engagement, it’s with how we are measuring and managing engagement. Smart companies think performance first and see engagement as a means to improve performance by listening closely to the opinions of their best employees. Too many companies have started treating engagement optional. It’s not. Engagement is a choice and all employees need to be chosing to engage. Engagement surveys done right are a means of gathering data to improve engagement, specifically with an eye to the best employees–this has a very positive impact on performance.

    And, as for score keeping in kids sports, I tend to agree, but I’m not sure I’d start keeping score at 4 years old. The thing about score keeping at this level is that I don’t think it would change how the kids play, but it does change the parents behavior for the worse.

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  • Steve Levy

    Jason – I think you hit upon an element that most in talent functions have missed: The connection between “adorable” and performance… ;)

    Most professionals in the “human” functions focus on the fuzzy-wuzzy, let’s sprinkle Unicorn horn and mist everyone with Puppy Dog’s breath because frankly it’s easier to sell than performance, feels good to the Engagement Master, and rarely hurts someone’s feelings (those who are lesser or non-performing).

    Identifying performance means having a tough conversation with managers – something, sadly, many have such a tough time with.

    Perhaps the issue isn’t so much with our customers but with us…

  • Steve Levy

    Ted, as for “why don’t we teach our kids to score from the very first practice game?” – it’s likely because someone doesn’t want those who don’t score to feel bad about themselves. I wish I was kidding…

  • Steve Levy

    JC, in this just-hitting-the-wires SHRM article http://www.shrm.org/hrdisciplines/technology/Articles/Pages/Less-Pay-to-Telework.aspx, we again see that engagement isn’t necessarily performance…

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