Getting engaged or heading for a break-up?

Keeping score of how engaged our people are has long been the staple diet of HR strategies. We always want to know how we are doing - even when times are difficult as they have been in recent years.

Now, as we see the return of business confidence, many employers are looking again at the scoreboard. And the focus now is on regaining trust after tough times and re-energising their workforce to fuel growth aspirations. The typical approach over the past decade has been for organisations to ask most, or all of their people about what they value - and what they don’t - from what is being offered,  whether that’s pay and benefits, work-life balance or the opportunities their work offers them. In our view there are at least three problems with this approach. 

First, although it asks individuals, it looks at aggregate results to decide what to do. If half of the population sees too much micro-management and the other half not enough hands-on involvement from line managers, then the conclusion reached is 'we’ve got just the right balance'.

Secondly it looks at 'stock' metrics; a snapshot at a given moment. Some employers respond like politicians in the run-up to elections with their equivalent of 'give away budgets' or pre-election gimmicks to gain popularity. How often has the Christmas Party been announced just as HR hits send on the annual staff survey? The current measurement methods fail to follow the dynamically changing nature of perceptions, let alone real changes in lifestyles and the choices that employees would like to make.

Thirdly, it looks backwards not forward. Most current engagement methods ask questions like: ‘how did you like this?’ or ‘how happy you are with that?’. They don't ask about trade-offs, for example, ‘what would you prefer - a smaller fixed pay raise vs. a higher variable; or job stability vs. learning on the job?’.

So what is the right answer? We think the solution lies in a lesson HR can learn from client service professionals. There are systems up and running that take reliable forward-looking client profiles – preferences - that predict future behaviours. These are better than reactions to the past. Instead of one-size-fits-all 'wholesale' engagement approaches, the future is a preference measurement for each person: what choices would we make if we were given the chance? Even the way we ask the engagement questions should be different. Why do we use boring questionnaires, not gaming? Why do we use one questionnaire and not a two-way interaction where the next question actually depends on the answers given so far?

We’re all different in what we like and what we want from life. We all make different choices as we move through our lives and career journeys. We all want to be treated as an individual. The employers who understand this and get their engagement right will attract, retain and get more from their people. They will build relationships that last - and they may find their engagement scores go up! Those who don’t  will find their people voting with their feet, especially as the economy picks up.  

Ben Jones | Director
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