Interview: A New Way to Measure Employee Engagement

Last week I was interviewed by IDG Research Managing Director, Janet King, on the topic of employee engagement.  Janet and I have worked together for many years but recently  she reached out to me to help design an expanded employee engagement offering that her team was devising. I was so excited by her idea – to take employee engagement measurement to a new level by incorporating the latest research in intrinsic motivation – that I was more than happy to share everything I knew on the subject.

I thought I’d share some excerpts of our talk for you here.  If you’re interested in learning more, consider joining me this Thursday, April 26th in Framingham, MA for a continental breakfast, an engaging workshop on this topic and great networking.  Hope to see you there if you’re local!


Janet: …You were able to help us understand the full picture of engagement in organizations – that we were missing a crucial piece.

Julie: Right. Of course, traditional engagement surveys have been measuring the impact of organizational and management aspects of the company environment – the external motivators – that contribute to employee engagement.  This has led to great improvements in organizational health as it gives companies insight into organizational and management practices it can develop and improve.  For instance, if performance management or employee development comes up low on a survey, a company can take action to improve those scores through management training or better processes.

Julie: But we’ve not had a good way of measuring and managing the individual aspect – the intrinsic motivation of the individuals and their own personal capability around getting and staying engaged in their work.

Janet: The concept of intrinsic motivation isn’t new though is it?

Julie: No, it’s not.  We’ve known the importance of intrinsic motivation since the early 1900s from Herzberg’s work, Flow theory and more recently in the work by Daniel Pink.  It was the research I saw from your organization that truly put a fine point on its importance though.

Janet: Yes, we were really excited to get those results.

Julie: I’ll tell you, with 20 years of experience in HR and leading employee engagement initiatives, I knew instinctively that it was important.  But to see the hard numbers? That intrinsic motivation level and capability contributes to nearly half of the employee engagement question?  This really speaks to the frustration many executives experience when they feel they’ve done all they can from an organizational and management standpoint and still find people disengaged.

Julie: My work at Uncommon Consulting is about building purposeful engagement in meaningful work.  That means that the organization, the management and the individual are all accountable for their part of the equation.

The interview in full was designed to share the foundation behind IDGR’s new engagement survey solution.  What I’m most excited about is the opportunity we now have to begin a different and more meaningful conversation about engagement.


We’re participating in a new economy – the information, services and imagination economy.  Most of the jobs my kids (11, 9, and 7) and their peers will hold, we can’t even imagine yet, never mind hear of.  This requires a drastic change in our relationship with work: preparing for it, securing it and performing at it.  And – since we’ve lost the umbrella (pensions), the net (job security) and the balance bar (stable environments and technology) – it requires a drastic change in our relationship with ourselves.  Standing out there on the tight wire, relieved of centuries-old work paradigms, we need to ask: What do I have to offer?  How can I articulate it? Where can I do my best work?  When should I leave for something else?  Who might benefit from my unique sort of contribution?  Without all the traditional trappings, we’re more on our own, more responsible, more accountable for what happens to us.

Environments can support our best selves by putting in place those extrinsic motivators we’ve grown to love.  But every single human being has a unique set of intrinsic motivators that only he or she can identify, articulate and leverage.  We’ve trained the companies in motivation.  We’ve trained the managers.  Now it’s time to train ourselves.  And build our foundation for the wild ride ahead.









One great interview question you’re probably not asking

Technical skill, accountability, responsibility, innovation, great attitude – all qualities you want to get a sense for during your interviews with candidates.  But how do you get a sense for motivation and engagement?  The ability to stay the course, pick one’s self up by one’s boot straps and keep on truckin?

Here’s a great question for your next interview:

“Tell me about a time when you lost motivation for or became disengaged with a project, team or company.  What prompted that loss of motivation or disengagement and what did you do about it?”

In their answer, you get a sense of:

  • what it takes to affect the individuals level of motivation or engagement
  • the things they value (respect, being heard, freedom, etc.)
  • the extent to which the individual takes responsibility for his or her own motivation and engagement
  • how effective they are at noticing and correcting a drift away from the goal
  • what you can expect if they become demotivated or disengaged at your organization



Top Ten Gifts for the HR professional in your life

10 Keen insight into what makes people tick

9 Effortless problem solving ability at all levels

8 Poise and calm in the face of adversity

7 Consistent application of management best practices

6 Celebration of diversity for innovation and perspective

5 The perfect words to deliver difficult news while respecting dignity

4 A network of fun, smart, generous colleagues

3 Insightful knowledge of industry trends

2 Engaged and motivated employees

1 Huge company profits attributed to excellent organizational process and talent

Wishing you the gift of purposeful engagement in meaningful work and a soaring new year!


The Price of Disengagement

My work is about inspiring purposeful engagement in meaningful work.  I do it because I know I can make a huge positive difference in people’s lives.  That makes me happy.  But why should YOU care?  Here’s some “Engagement Nerd” data for you:

Gallup research has shown that”engaged employees are more productive, profitable, safer, create stronger customer relationships, and stay longer with their company than less engaged employees.”

The consulting firm, Blessing White says that “Engaged employees are not just committed.  They are not just passionate and proud.  They have a line-of-sight on their own future and on the organization’s mission and goals.  They are enthused and in gear, using their talents and discretionary effort to make a difference in their employer’s quest for sustainable business success.”

Hewitt Associates has reported that high engagement firms had a total shareholder return that was 19% higher than average in 2009.  In low engagement organizations, total shareholder return was 44% below average.

Similarly, Gallup found that organizations with comparatively high proportions of engaged employees were much less likely than the rest to see a decline in EPS in 2008 and Wharton’s analysis of the Best Companies to Work for in America indicated that “high levels of employee satisfaction generate superior long-horizon returns”.

A recent national poll by the Conference Board found that job satisfaction is the lowest since the poll began in 1987 with only 45 percent of employees satisfied with their jobs.

Disengaged managers are three times more likely to have disengaged employees.  This data from the 2009 Sirota Survey Intelligence Study.

Studies over the past few years have consistently shown that 60 percent of workers plan to look for new jobs as soon as the economy provides opportunities. This data becomes more relevant to the average manager when paired with the fact that replacing a departing employee can cost as much as 1.5 to 3.5 times their annual salary, posing a threat to the success of any organization in a fragile recovery. (Salaries Looking Up, John Dooney, HR Magazine, October, 2009).

Wanted: Ability, Responsibility and Accountability

It has never been more important for our schools, our businesses – even our society – to develop individuals who are responsible and accountable for their own career success.  But how do we develop the ability, responsibility and accountability for doing good work?

 The industrial economy is over.  The days of “paying your dues” and “climbing the ladder” are over.  The dues are never paid and the ladder no longer exists.  The days of steady, routine work are over.  Technology is changing everything, the globe is shrinking and the tables are turned – daily.  The information/services economy demands much much more from us as individuals.

What skills are needed to compete in the information/services economy?

The jobs our present day students will eventually hold have not even been invented yet.  You can’t study for them.  The expectations of professionals will be less about what you’ve done and more about what you can do.

Today, managers want employees who are accountable for their work.  Tomorrow, they will have to be.

Today, employees want to feel more in control of their employment.  Tomorrow, they will have to be.

Today, change agents complain that their clients won’t adopt their recommendations.  Tomorrow, they will be held accountable for the results.

Today, students learn and memorize and practice curriculum that was written at the cusp of agrarian and industrial society.  Tomorrow, they will be woefully unprepared.

Are you a manager or Human Resources leader looking to boost productivity?

Are you a coach, consultant, trainer looking to facilitate real change?

Turns out, you can’t do it yourself.  New research has given important insight into how individuals can become motivated to move, engaged in shared goals and – yes – responsible and accountable for that motivation and engagement.

The four steps to motivation and engagement are:

  1. Acknowledging and addressing the obstacles in your way
  2. Managing your own and others’ triggers and behaviors
  3. Leveraging your natural talent for brain boosting effects
  4. Personally connecting and committing to the purpose of any objective, goal or mission.

The first two steps are like finding and releasing the emergency brake on forward movement.  But, ironically, we’ve been trained for years to ignore them.

The second two steps tap into individuals’ personal “best” – like aiming a laser beam at your goal.

Even more exciting – for the first time – we’re not just able to give people the “tools” to manage or motivate others.  We now have the ability to transfer the necessary skills to the individuals themselves.

And good thing.  Because today those skills are a “nice-to-have” for teams, organizations and change efforts. Tomorrow, they are a need-to-have for the people in them.

Forget Positive Thinking

We’ve been beaten repeatedly about the head and shoulders in recent years to remember to “think positively”.  Woe to the team member who voices concern.  The trusty contrarian is now disdained and the nay sayers are summarily silenced.

Ironically, by squashing these Negative Nellies we are slowing down positive progress toward our most critical goals.

Research shows that our human brains are wired against change.  Introducing a new direction (information, competition, pace, etc.) causes a physiological stress reaction against the change.

The Value of Venting

Interestingly, one of the fastest ways to reduce the emergency brake effect of this stress reaction is to allow a bit of venting.  “What don’t we like about this news?” “What problems will it cause?”  “What can go wrong?” “Why is it stupid?” What may not have been taken into consideration?”

Our stress response is linked to survival.  Adrenaline is triggered which sets off flight/flight/freeze behavior.  At work this takes the form of the contrarian who fights back, the star team member who dusts off her resume to prepare for flight, the long timer who’ll bide his time, frozen in place.

Brain scan technology shows that just naming the threat – thinking it, saying it or, even more effective, writing it down – counteracts the threat response.  By giving credence to the stress factor and addressing it, we return out of threat mode and can enter a more rational state.

Once all the big bad stuff has been vented, we are in a physiologically more receptive place to ask: “How will we handle this?”

“You Popped the Zit”

Not a pretty visual.  But this is what a client said to me the other day to sum up the impact I had on her team.  We were recalling a session I had done for her staff years ago.  It was the first time we had worked together and it involved facilitating the identification of goals, roles and process across multiple sub-teams.

Festering Boil

The group had recently churned through layoffs, management turnover, reorganization and a merge with another division.  People were angry, frustrated, bitter, resentful, withdrawn and, in some cases, behaving badly.  As the Uncommon Consulting logo might imply, this is my favorite kind of assignment.  The snarlier the better.  This team had all the charm of a festering boil.

Bringing it to the surface

The program went well in terms of the communication of the goal, clarification of roles and responsibilities and having all 25 participants engaged in discussion about what was expected of the team going forward.  They weren’t necessarily happy but the goal was now clear, roles were marked out, grievances were aired and accountability was assigned.

Popping the Zit

Less than a week or so after the session, I got a call from the client to tell me that half her team had left – some voluntarily, others not so much.  She was now managing critical deadlines with a lack of critical staff.  Yeesh.  But wasn’t this a good thing?  The goal was now clear, roles were now clear…isn’t this what you’re supposed to do to make things better?  Yes.  And sometimes it gets messy and painful in the process – in the short term.  With a long term view, what you want is a team that is enthusiastic about that goal and those roles.  Engaged in how to do it better, faster, stronger, more.  Motivated to see the team succeed because they value the goal, the team and their part in it.

One guy

One of the guys that quit was one of several who had been behaving badly (disrespectful comments to manager and colleagues, refusing to adopt new processes, generally being fussy without filter).  He came to the manager with his resignation and said he respected her and respected how she was managing the team toward new goals.  He said the thing was, that it’s just not what he wanted to be doing.  So he said he was going to go find a place where he can do what he does best.

Hooray for the team.  Hooray for him.

Finally! A sensible take on performance reviews!

YES! YES!  YES!  For God’s Sake, YES!  This article made me perfectly giddy.   As a long time manager and HR exec I have eschewed the performance review.  Eschewed I say!

The traditional performance review process more often than not results in:

Wasted HR Time: HR should be spending it’s time recruiting excellent talent and building competitive culture.  Not chasing after process.

Misguided Management Activity: For managers who know what they’re doing and consistently provide specific, timely, relevant feedback on performance throughout the year in a manner that is motivating and engaging for their staff, the fill-in-the-blank performance review is an insult to both manager and employee.  For the managers who give no feedback during the year and who resist and resent even the annual task, the resulting review is an insult to the employee and the company.

Increased Liability: The performance reviews completed by managers who just want to get the darn thing done and don’t have either the competence or the guts to provide constructive guidance are dangerous.  Everyone gets an A.  And then a month later they want to fire someone and HR pulls the “documentation” and sees the person got all A’s.  (Pan to beleaguered HR professional sighing with head in hands.)

Employee Damage: “Aren’t we supposed to have reviews at least once a year?  I haven’t had one since I got here.”  “My manager tried to give me a meets expectations but I told her I never get a meets expectations.”  “These performance review forms are completely irrelevant to my job. I want to know how I’m actually doing.”   “I got exceeds expectations.  Shouldn’t I get a raise?”  These are but a few examples representing the dashed expectations of employees unfortunate enough to be on the ugly end of a well intentioned but ineffective performance process.

Instead of devoting time and effort to a static, marginally relevant, impersonal process, my vote is to train managers to manage and hold them accountable for that management.   Oh, but wait, that would mean our leaders would have to manage.

And don’t even get me started on merit increases….

What do you think?  Are you pro- or anti-performance review process?

This time it’s hard core.

You want the truth???  You can’t handle the truth!!!!!

Actually, the truth is, we’re not handling this very well at all.  And now we have hard core facts to back it up.  Facts for what?   Employee Engagement.  Yes, that’s right: facts, data, numbers.  Yes, for Employee Engagement.  Don’t believe me?  Well we have my good, smart friend Alana Dros to thank for doing the hard work of pulling this info together.  Alana is the best technical HR person I’ve ever worked with.  She is the STJ to my NFP, ying to my yang…  You get the point.  Anyway, here’s a few tid bits from a fabulous presentation she gave to a group of senior managers recently.  She has graciously allowed me to share this gold with you.   Read on…

The above chart was May 2005 Health Stream Recognition ROI Survey.  Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton’s research found links between recognition and business results:There are three measures shown in this chart.

  • ROE – Return on Equity
  • ROA – Return on Assets
  • ROM – Operating Margin

According to the data, companies that effectively recognize excellence enjoy:

  • an ROE more than three times higher than the return experienced by firms that do not.
  • an ROA more than three times higher than the return experienced by firms that do not.
  • and have six times higher operating margins than by firms that do not!

Here’s another take from June 2009 research by McKinsey:

In other news:

•79% of employees who quit their jobs cite a lack of appreciation as the key reason for leaving

•65% of Americans report that they weren’t recognized in the least bit the previous year

A Picture of Purposeful Engagement

This is a picture of my kids from a number of years ago.  It sits on a shelf above the stove where I was making tea in the kitchen this morning.  It occurred to me that this is a picture of purposeful engagement in meaningful work.  Do you think so too?  Why?


Three Kids Helping

Purposeful Engagement in Meaningful Work