We seem to have accepted something about employee engagement that I am not sure is true. Read the literature, the articles, listen to the conference presentations, and you will find an assumption in the mix. That employee engagement will help drive business success. Not can, will.
Look on the Engage for Success website and you will find something interesting. They say that believe that there is a correlation between employee engagement and high organisational productivity and performance. There is much talk of links between these factors.
Correlation. Not causation.
Correlation means that there is a link. A relationship between two variables, of some degree of strength. But it is not causation.
Causation is something else again. If there is causation, there is certainty that one thing leads to another. That there is nothing else going on. That there are no unknown third variables. That the relationship is predictable.
I’m not sure that I see this, in the engagement debate. There is plenty of evidence, anecdotal, case study and more formal research, that shows high employee engagement and strong financial performance regularly occur together. I don’t seek to dispute this.
The evidence tells us that where there is high engagement, then there is often high productivity and strong financial performance, as well as other positive factors such as reduced absence levels. From that we seem to have made the leap of faith that if we work hard on engagement, then jolly nice financial stuff will follow. I have heard HR professionals talk about this as if it is a certainty.
But what if there is something else going on?
What if it is the other way around completely?
Maybe if you work in a company that is successful financially, there is plenty of cash for pay rises and bonuses and learning and development and a great benefits package and a snooker table in the employee chill out zone and a slide in the office. Maybe that is why the company has a great engagement score.
Maybe if you work for a company that is financially successful, their success is partly based upon great leadership, and this has positive effect on employee engagement?
But what if these factors just naturally come together?
What about companies were the numbers are good but the engagement score isn’t, and vice versa?
Maybe there are other variables at play that we haven’t even thought about.
Maybe I am getting a little too pedantic here. Maybe this issue isn’t that important. But in HR, we are hanging so much off the engagement agenda. It’s our thing, right now. My argument is that we should not unquestioningly accept the hype.
The improved performance engagement ‘promise’ is sometimes how HR talks to the business. How we seek to business case some of the people stuff. But what if it is flawed? Not the concept of striving to do good people stuff, not the desire to make work a better place to be, not the aspiration towards great leadership, strong employee voice and all the other stuff. But just the notion that one number can drive other numbers. That your percentage score can really drive your financial performance. That there is cause and effect.
There seems to be a consensus that engagement is a good thing (which I agree with) and that it will lead to a certain outcome (which I am not sure is necessarily true). Because what we do know about employee engagement, is that it is about feelings. About something inside. Connections. And people are messy and cannot be neatly measured, the way profit and loss can.
So when it comes to engagement, is the tail wagging the dog, or is it the other way around?
Just a thought.
For more on this subject, I’d recommend ‘Engaged with what? A systematic review of the construct of engagement’ by Balain and Sparrow, which inspired this blog post.