Most people believe fervently that engaged employees produce better results.  That’s why we do engagement surveys. But not everyone agrees. Rob Briner, Professor of Organisational Psychology at Bath University, is strongly critical of the evidence, arguing that it is by no means clear that engagement and business results are causally related and that there is no clear proof that raising engagement levels causes uplifted business results. It is certainly possible, but consider the counter argument: that raising the levels of commitment and enthusiasm in an organisation does harm to the results.  That is, surely, unlikely!

Yet a rhetorical argument is not evidence and it may be wise to rethink our approach to engagement and how we go about measuring it.  That is my purpose here: to begin the thought process that might result in a radical departure from current approaches.  I also want to raise the matter of how leadership affects engagement and not just whether engagement affects results.

The history of management and leadership is littered with fads and fashions rather than the incremental progress of a more traditional science, notwithstanding the occasional shift of paradigm!  Could the whole engagement thing be just another fad?  Without a strong and clear evidence base, it is likely.

Working with engagement in organisations may make a difference if approached differently.  Engagement is usually measured by an annual survey across the entire organisation.  The surveys are often long and complex and therefore slow to suggest conclusions and implications for action.  By the time the results are collated, analysed, fed back to the top team in outline, analysed in depth, digested and then rolled out to the whole organisation via Corporate Comms or HR, the results are out of date.  The key words here are long, slow and infrequent.  But what is the alternative?

Several organisations are experimenting.  Orange has piloted a five-item survey conducted monthly and fed back fast.  Short and fast makes ‘more frequent’ possible.  We have heard that eBay have gone one better: they have a single question that is administered DAILY to everyone as they log off at the end of the day.  The concept is simple: how has your day been? Press the red or the green button.

But what about the ‘organisation-wide’ nature of most engagement surveys?  What if engagement is principally a local phenomenon rather than an organisation-wide matter?  One of the most powerful effects on individual engagement is the relationship with the immediate manager, and maybe it is other local matters that disproportionately determine my feelings of engagement?  By ‘local’ I mean: my team, my boss’s team, my office, the site on which I work and not corporate matters emanating from HQ on another continent.  There are overarching matters of brand, values and culture but these, too, may be modified by local influences and interpretation.

For these and other reasons, we are experimenting with a brief (17 item) questionnaire that aims to relate engagement to quality of local leadership.  The tool operates like a 360 feedback but its focus is the team rather than an individual.  It is called the Leadership Team Impact Monitor (LTIM).

The management team members themselves (say seven people) answer 17 questions about their collective leadership and rate their own feelings of engagement.  The direct reports to the management team also score the management team’s collective leadership and their own feelings of engagement.

This approach may be used to gauge: how accurate is the management team’s self-perceptions about their leadership? How does the quality of leadership in the management team affect engagement among those who report to them?  How engaged are the management team themselves and does this have an effect on the wider team’s engagement?  And which issues in the management team’s leadership need fixing first.

If an organisation-wide engagement result is required, these local surveys may be aggregated and even supplemented by a few questions about the organisation-level issues that we know affect engagement such as brand and culture.  In this way, engagement and leadership are directly related and measured where it matters most: locally.