Show me the evidence

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.

13 thoughts on “Show me the evidence

  1. Great blog – which reminded of the three legged race from school days – remember that? Business success and engagement hobbling along – the race is only won when both can get into stride together, but most of the time each thinks it’s supporting the other…

  2. Gemma, you raise an important point. I don’t think you’re being too pedantic. I like your scientific outlook and I’ve found myself wondering exactly the same thing in the past about the correlation/causation of engagement. I believe that Gallup has done the best job of answering this question where they looked specifically at business units (teams) within the same company where there existed significant discrepancies in performance between business units despite each team having access to the same bonuses/snooker tables etc. They found that teams with higher levels of engagement consistently had higher profitability, productivity, customer metrics, retention rates, as well as fewer safety issues, absenteeism etc. The team’s direct manager was found to be the most important variable affecting each specific team’s overall engagement, most especially the retention rates. This is a large part of the reason why I personally believe the question has been put to rest. Engagement drives performance. There is cause and effect. That said, engagement only adds to success — I don’t think that it should be taken as a panacea to all life’s problems. High engagement levels are not going to save a company with bad fundamentals and poor strategic oversight. There’s more to success than an engagement score. The importance of engagement shouldn’t be downplayed though either. Managers need to understand how important, sometimes devastating, their relationships with team members can be on the bottom line. But overall I think you are right to question this basic assumption. You’re an excellent writer and I very much enjoyed reading this post. Keep up the great work 🙂

    • Thanks for the comments Theo. I agree Gallup has done some excellent research on this point. I re-read ‘the relationship between engagement at work and organisational outcomes’ whilst writing the post. I also think there 12 question approach is one of the better ways of assessing engagement levels. I’m not a huge fan of surveys, but if you want to run one then I like the simplicity of the model.

  3. It’s a fascinating debate. And of course it’s not just about the link between employee engagement and the financials.

    I was talking to an NHS Trust recently who have lower than average employee engagement scores but high levels of patient satisfaction. There must surely be some confounding variables at play there.

    As you imply Gemma, the confounding variables are probably emotional, and metrics find it hard to take account of emotions. There are clearly employees who find something within themselves that enables them to be compassionate and caring even though their organisation is failing to engage them.

    But it does come back to an interesting point about financials. In the Trust I have referred to, the HR team are finding it hard to secure budget for anything that might improve the employee experience because it doesn’t appear to be impacting on patient care.

    • An interesting example Paul. I do think that sometimes there are professions, and you might expect caring to be one, where the attachment to the work and the attachment to the employer or its leaders might be entirely different. This presents an interesting challenge for the HR department – they could spend any amount of money potentially on any initiative and it might make very little difference at all. It would be interesting to see some analysis / research by the engagement movement into organisations of this type, or those where the trend is not the typical ‘both are high together’ type.

  4. This is a very brilliant piece. I was told by my lecturers back then in uni to question general beliefs and assumptions. This is what you have done in this post.

    It will be naive to think engagement WILL always drive productivity. As you rightly pointed out, there are a whole lot of other variables.

    A related issue is that of high wages as cause and effect to performance. This we all know is not always true.

    My take on all these is that what works for Company A might not work for Company B.

    Once again, a beautiful write-up.

  5. Brilliant. Every time I see a statistic bandied about on Twitter I mentally respond “Correlation does not imply causation”, (somewhat in the manner of Fr Jack and his “that would be an ecumenical matter”). You’re absolutely right to suggest that the reverse of the accepted view (i.e. that successful firms lead to more engaged employees) is an equally valid interpretation.

    This is exactly why I have banged on elsewhere about HR “numeracy” – not because it we need to be constantly crunching data but because we need to have sufficient knowledge to be able to understand conclusions that are drawn from data and, if necessary, challenge them in a meaningful way.

    • Thanks for the comments Simon. I really should respond properly, but now all I can think about is Father Jack and what his take might be on employee engagement. Drink!

  6. Gemma,
    It could be correlation. But, I think you are missing one piece here. What definition of engagement you are referring here? Since there are multiple definitions, it is important we understand this. If I define engagement as employee effort which leads to higher productivity, by definition, I am referring to only those activities/ effort which results in higher productivity.
    But good that you are questioning this assumption.

    -Mahesh Varavooru,
    Mutual Force

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