Steven Forth is a co-founder of TeamFit. See his TeamFit skill map here.

I spent the week of October 9th in Las Vegas for the HR Technology Conference. It was a great event. Almost 500 vendors and several thousand people gathered to discuss key challenges in human resources.

One clear trend was the importance of ’employee engagement.’ We are moving from point solutions for employee engagement to employee engagement applications and we are beginning to see the emergence of employee engagement platforms. The standard point solutions are things like

  • Annual performance reviews
  • 360-degree feedback systems
  • Employee messaging channels
  • Pulse surveys
  • Employee recognition and rewards systems

The engagement applications typically bring together several of these point solutions and wrap them with better analytics, reporting and APIs (this being how they get integrated with other applications and platforms). Platforms strive to be all encompassing and to include all of the point applications into an integrated environment. They are most often built up through as series of acquisitions as a sector consolidates.

I was disappointed by most of the proposed solutions for employee engagement and the overall thinking about what engagement means and what enables it. The focus does not really seem to have gone beyond surveys (and pulse surveys are still surveys) and a focus on measurement and rather trivial reward and recognition systems.

Let’s look at measurement first. I have two concerns. (i) Do direct measures of employee engagement actually measure employee engagement? (ii) Does measuring employee engagement (if that is what we are doing) lead to an increase in employee engagement?

To answer these questions we have to have an idea of that we mean by engagement. Pulling together a number of insights I came up with the following (League has a good e-book on the subject).

The employee:

Has an emotional commitment to the company
Sometimes experiences flow in their work
Feels she or he is part of a team

This is reflected in a number of behaviours.

The employee:

Tries to act in the company’s interest and not merely follow routine procedures
Is internally motivated and makes decisions on their own
Lives up to commitments
Actively communicates up, down, around and outside

I don’t think a survey is the best way to measure any of these things nor do common rewards and recognition systems do much to instill and support these behaviours.

How could one get at the actual state of employee engagement? First, by listening in. Then, through conversations. Finally, by providing ways for people to show their skills, celebrate their highlights, and make connections with other people.

As much conversation now occurs through e-mail and messaging, and applications like Slack. One could simply listen in and use the sentiment analysis techniques developed by companies like Radian6 (now part of Salesforce) for social media marketing. This would likely give more insights than surveys. Concepts like Energy, Engagement and Exploration, see Alex Pentland on The New Science of Building Great Teams in Harvard Business Review.

One problem with surveys is that they are one-directional. That can only reduce engagement and not increase it. Engagement requires conversation. One of the best ways to encourage engagement is to have lots of conversations, especially informal conversations, and to encourage these by designing work, workplaces and supporting applications in ways that encourage conversations.

I believe that engagement is not primarily and individual – company kind of thing. It is a team thing. People mostly work on teams and their first loyalty is quite often to their team(s). Any employee engagement program that ignores team loyalties and dynamics will miss the point.

I did go to one session I found quite inspirational. “Turning Engagement Into Performance: How Engagement Drives Outcomes.” The session was led by Amy Leschke-Kahle, VP of Performance Acceleration at The Marcus Cunningham Group (See the new book by Marcus Buckingham Standout 2.0). The panelists were Ashley Goodall, SVP Leadership and Team Intelligence at Cisco and Taylor Foss, Senior Vice President of Organizational Transformation at Mission Health.

The session was a great example of how to host a session. The moderator provided just enough context to set the context for the panelists stories and then asked probing, and sometimes difficult questions.

My key takeaways were as follows:

1 – Teams are at the centre of engagement – Cisco’s focus on helping people become great team leaders is paying off
2 – Team leadership relies on conversations, lots of conversations, the more the better
3 – Conversations lead to engagement
4 – Measure engagement by measuring conversations
5 – Focus the conversations on people’s strengths and motivations and not just on tasks

There were some compelling stories shared, and I hope the speakers will write and publish more on these themes and continue to share what they are learning.

Meanwhile, let’s all stop doing surveys and spend the time and money on conversations. The best recognition is not a gift card, it is the celebration of people’s stories, recognition of their motivations and a commitment to giving them control over their own work.

For some thoughts on how skill and expertise management plays into this, see The ROI on Skill and Expertise Management Part 3: Engagement & Retention.