The ultimate purpose for finding the most precise index for measuring and benchmarking employee engagement is to ensure accurate identification of actionable management factors that cause employees to want to work harder, stay longer, and care more. In other words, the most important question to be answered is: What can managers and leaders do, at every level of an organization, that could cause employees within their area of influence to be more motivated, committed, and conscientious? This question cannot be answered reliably without the most accurate and appropriate engagement index.
Forty years of experimentation, research, validation and consulting experience has led Workforce Science Associates to a refined understanding of what makes the most valid and useful employee engagement index. The key criteria we rely on for item identification and inclusion in our extensive research are as follows:
Each item should be logical and easily understood by employees.
Engagement is a relatively stable factor when measured across an entire workforce. If the items are overly influenced by factors such as mood, contentment or fun, for example, the scores may fluctuate too much or too quickly, and the analysis may yield a misleading result.
Most critically, the final combination of items making up the index correlate with and predict workforce performance. In other words, to determine whether a combination of items will be included, we ask: Does the particular combination of items chosen represent the best reflection of those data points a company uses to assess workforce performance?
Each item in the engagement index should be a broad, summary item so the priority analysis is not biased toward identifying any individual action item from the wide variety of likely choices.
Let’s start by calling out some examples of commonly used items we have tested in the past that do not meet these criteria and, therefore, played a role in limiting the impact of the engagement survey process.
Mere satisfaction sets too low a bar to be a good indicator of engagement. Satisfaction, by itself, infers a minimum expectation as opposed to the kind of full embrace typical of highly engaged employees. Including this item in the engagement index results in less discrimination between the various priority items identified through the analysis.
It is true that, if a company has a highly engaged workforce it is more likely to score higher on this item. However, the opposite is not necessarily the case. Employees can rate the company as a great place to work for reasons other than those that reflect their level of actual engagement. This question causes items that infer conditions such as fun, contentment, harmony and limited expectations to be overrepresented in the priority analysis. This item limits the predictive power of an engagement index.
Although these items can be helpful for other purposes, such as predicting replacement hiring in the future, they can result in misleading results when included in the engagement index. Employees who are close to retirement or who will be forced to leave their job for personal reasons may be highly engaged yet know they will be departing the company soon. Also, recent hires may love their new job but still have questions about their future options. These factors confuse the scoring and make the items undesirable for inclusion in an engagement index.
Discretionary effort is a very popular component of many people’s definition of engagement. Although discretionary effort is an extremely important outcome of engagement, it is a terrible measurement alternative. Employees simply cannot objectively rate the level of discretionary effort they put forth. After all, weren’t we all taught to always give 110 percent? Also, when employees are very disengaged, work can actually feel harder, which demands additional effort. This factor actually creates a reverse scoring effect for some people, which really confuses the data and the analysis.
After conducting thousands of studies, experimenting with many different items and combinations of items, and doing linkage research at every opportunity, we have concluded that the following engagement survey questions are absolutely the very best indicators of employee engagement.
As one of our top consultants has stated many times: Satisfaction is about the head; extreme satisfaction is about the heart. The data clearly shows that, in this instance, adding extreme wording transforms the item from one that dilutes the findings to one that actually clarifies results. The extreme wording increases the range of responses in a meaningful way that adds utility to the overall index.
This item, more times than not, has proven to be our best single indicator for overall engagement. There is something about a willingness to include friends and family members in the company that truly reflects an employee’s judgment of the most important aspects of worklife. The item also captures a willingness to advocate for the company.
This item avoids the complications associated with the two retention items identified above. Whether close to retirement or brand new, employees who are not considering where the grass might be greener are much more likely to exhibit a current level of commitment that translates to day-to-day performance.
This item is particularly popular with companies that have built a strong brand but also has clearly demonstrated its application and validity across all companies. From a consulting perspective, this item has proven to be an important factor in helping executives identify a strength that can be the basis for a path forward, especially in situations where overall engagement is low. If employees who are somewhat disengaged still feel a strong, positive affiliation with the brand, the process of communicating a commitment to growth in areas of non-strength can be enhanced by building on this strength.
As an index, these four items in combination result in higher correlations to more measures of workforce performance than any other combination of items ever tested thus far. As an added bonus, once explained, the index is normally regarded by executives to have very strong face validity, thus, the index tends to encounter very little resistance. Most people in the corporate world understand that if one wants to know how well they are serving customers they need to include a satisfaction item, a likelihood-to-refer item, and a future-intent item. Many appreciate this parallel. Most executives view the pride item as a source of valuable feedback about the strength of their brand.
I believe it was Peter Drucker who once said: “There is a way. Find it. Do it right.” This is extremely relevant to the process of delivering breakthrough discoveries using employee engagement surveys. Advanced technologies have truly changed the game, enhanced the process and made it so much faster and easier to acquire information. With those technologies has come the temptation to give preference to the new and innovative. Sometimes this temptation is indulged at the expense of the right science and the tried and true method of determining real and valid gems of wisdom in the data. Some things are just too important to discard and replace with innovation.
In 1895, Wilhelm Rentgen invented the x-ray. A potential game-changer in medical treatment. But it took a while. X-rays can be misleading unless the patient remains perfectly still during execution. Practitioners struggled for many years with the problem of how to get the patient to remain still. The prescribed instruction—please remain perfectly still—just didn’t get the job done. It was sort of like instructing them not to think about the letter ‘W.’ As soon as you mention the letter i’s all anyone could think about. A few years later, someone finally employed Drucker-like advice. They tried this instruction instead: Take a deep breath and hold it. Two months ago, I had a chest xray. The instruction was still the same, after all these years. In x-ray science, just as in survey research, words matter. Once you find the words that unlock the magic of the process, use them. Learn from them. Act on them.
At Workforce Science Associates, we believe in Leading Engagement with Purpose. We uphold that promise to clients by relying on the most talented and experienced people in the industry; by employing the smartest and most appropriate science and analytics; and by holding ourselves accountable to measurable workforce improvement. This focus empowers us to deliver an impactful workforce engagement solution to every client, every employee, and every business leader.
Bill Erickson has played a key role in building and studying great companies for more than 40 years. After fifteen years as Executive Vice President of the Gallup Organization, he was a founder of Kenexa. Before Kenexa was acquired by IBM in 2012, it had become the fastest growing and largest provider of employee research. Bill is uniquely qualified as an HR thought leader, having played critical roles in building and transforming great organizations as both an outsider and insider while directing a massive body of innovative research on many of the world’s most effective workforces. Bill is a founding member of Workforce Science Associates.