Listen carefully: Please kill the engagement survey – Part I

A 20th-century management style keeps coming back.

Americans like to say "culture eats strategy for breakfast." But in New Zealand, many organisations use the more eloquent Maori proverb:

He aha te mea nui o te ao
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. 
What is the most important thing in the world?
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people

You will most likely recognise the above proverb. It is the preface of many annual reports, stakeholder briefings and website landing pages. We all know people are the most important asset. Right? Yet if reading further into corporate documentation we see a different view.

People are commodities or resources to be manipulated for profit. People are the cogs in the machine. It’s about finding the right cog, using it until it wears out then replacing it with new, bright and enthusiastic cog – rinse and repeat. 

We determine the role of the cog then specify that role in a job description. We reduce the new bright and enthusiastic cog to little more than a list of competencies and skills. We specify behaviours or attributes (values) to further refine and prescribe how people should act. We then hire against the job description and manage against the specified attributes, competencies and behaviours.

Classical performance management becomes a demeaning experience staff and management loathe in equal measure.

But that’s ok, because when our cogs become disengaged we roll out the annual survey to discover what bothers them. Once we know, we set KPI’s to empower management to improve engagement with pie, bar and line graphs. We look for ‘levers’ of change and ‘drivers’ of behaviour, words that emphasise the mechanical way in which we view relationships with people.

In our organisational machine, being happy at work is a KPI. So we measure the KPI and punish those who fail to meet the goals associated with that KPI.

The engagement survey – a history
The engagement survey has its roots in 1900’s Taylorist scientific management theory. 

Frederick Winslow Taylor’s method was to break the job into its component parts, maximise the worker’s output through scientific analysis of their interactions with each component, redefine the work method, measure the result and reward those who are more productive. 

This “deconstruct, optimise, reconstruct” Taylorism approach can be seen in modern times such as with business process reengineering, Lean manufacturing and the insidious Six Sigma. 

Two quotes summarise Taylor’s methods:

“It is only through enforced standardisation of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone.

"In the past, the man has been first. In the future, the system must be first."

Taylorism is based on the assumption that workers are inherently lazy, uneducated and only motivated by money. The role of the manager is to break down tasks and give specific instructions to workers. Workers are the cogs, management are the system’s engineers. 

Not surprisingly, scientific management and the treatment of people as commodities or resources to be manipulated for profit was rather unpopular. Taylor began to see that motivation was a major factor in productivity. 

A few years later, Western Electric in the US began studying its employees’ performance using a number of variables to find the cause of increased productivity. The findings at its Hawthorne plant were surprising and led to new developments in management and motivational tactics. One of which was the engagement survey.

Digital Taylorism?
I asked a leading engagement survey provider some questions about engagement. The conversation follows below:

What is employee engagement?

Employee engagement is the level of “connectedness” employees feel towards their organisation and their willingness to expend discretionary effort to ensure the organisation reaches its goals.

What are we seeking to understand from an engagement survey?

Research (and common sense) tells us that the more engaged staff are, the greater the positive impact they will have on factors such as financial performance, productivity, quality and customer satisfaction.

What are we seeking to change?

To be a successful organisation, rather than people just doing the job, we need people who seek to solve problems, take the initiative, help colleagues and customers where needed.

Wow, how do you do all that?

We define engagement as a set of desired attitudinal and behavioural states. We measure these using a small number of equally-weighted survey items. We collect this information anonymously and present it as a set of graphs.

So…how do we use this information to change engagement?

All of the questions in the survey are important in understanding how employees view their organisation. Some are more important than others in terms of impact on engagement.

Those with the most impact on engagement we call “Key Drivers of Engagement.” Key drivers are powerful predictors of engagement and are of great importance when considering priorities for improvement initiatives.

What is wrong with the above model?
The above model sounds reasonable, coherent and plausible. Many people use it, surely they can’t all be wrong? 

Furthermore, for a fee we can even benchmark our data with other organisations and previous surveys. We can measure change statistically, because what gets measured gets done, and we can present it in graphs! We can associate KPI’s and goals with engagement. 

If you look closer you can see the “deconstruct, optimise, reconstruct” methodology underpinning the approach. This is 1900’s scientific management deployed digitally.

It is nonsense. And I use the word deliberately, it does not make sense. It is pseudoscience and a dangerous waste of resources and talent!

Continued in Part II