sailors engagement metric Reflective Management

Jacob Morgan, author of The Future Of Work and self-described futurist, publishes a weekly newsletter bringing together his articles, videos and various other activities.  What I appreciate most about Jacob’s newsletter is that, like a stand-up comic, he uses it to try out new material before he publishes it to a wider audience.

In last week’s newsletter, Jacob was riffing on the idea that “engagement” has had its day as a metric for measuring workplaces.

“the goal for most organizations has simply become to improve their engagement score which to me is just like saying your goal on social media is to get more twitter followers, it becomes more about the number and less about the actual value.”

Metrics create a common set of problems.  People are measured against metrics so they try to game them.  People argue about whether the metric actually measures anything.  If you’re focusing on boosting engagement scores without any sincere effort to improve your workplace then, yes, that’s a soulless approach to employee engagement.

Jacob goes on to argue that there’s another downside to focusing on engagement as a metric.

“The other big issue I have with the employee engagement metric is it focuses on mediocrity and on hiring average employees.”

Jacob goes on to explain that the Gallup definition of engagement – he thinks – only encompasses people who are C to F players, and doesn’t include “the raving employees who go above and beyond to make the company succeed”.  I think Jacob’s point here is that the engagement scale doesn’t go high enough and if it did, you’d have the incentive to hire toward a top-end of the scale.


Watch the 1 minute TL;DR summary below


I appreciate Jacob starting the discussion, and his e-mail invited comment and opinion, so I sent him mine.  I’ll summarize here.

I, like most other humans, am laughably bad at judging performance. We carry enormous bias toward people who are “like us”.

There’s no absolute measure of A vs D player.

It’s highly contextual.  An individual employee can look like a rock star to some and a dullard to others.  Company 1’s D player is company 2’s A player because company 2 is a better fit (skills, culture etc).

For example, I’ve been awarded raises while phoning it in, and passed over when I’ve been delivering a lot of value.  People saw me creating value when I was disengaged, and didn’t see the value I was creating when I was engaged.

Performance and engagement are related, but they don’t measure the same thing.

What I am sure of is that engaging an employee in their work can improve their performance, even if we can’t adequately assess performance.  If you can engage your D players and turn them into B players, you bring your organization’s overall performance up.  Turning a D player into a B player requires skill and attention from a manager.  It’s worth the effort because your A players appreciate it when the team around them improves.

Lastly, I don’t believe engagement, or the ability to engage an employee, plays any role in the hiring process.  No manager consciously thinks about whether they can engage an employee and so hires “low” to find someone who will engage more easily.  Is there a subconscious effect here?  Where the spectre of engagement scores cause managers to hire lower skilled workers?  I don’t think so.  Hiring is, for most managers, a similar problem to judging performance.  We’re not good at assessing how good an employee will be from a couple of hours of discussion.  It takes several months to know whether you’ve made a good hire or not.


I remain steadfast in my belief that improving the quality of your managers will make the biggest difference to your business results.  Google has done significant research into the role of managers in the performance of the organizations.  I agree with Jacob that engagement is a poor metric if it is the only thing you’re doing to you focus your managers on.

Businesses need to do a better job teaching managers how to address the common complaints of employees.

Managers need to know how to create teamwork.  They need to provide compelling vision and direction to motivate employees.  Managers need to be skilled at identifying and removing obstacles that act as drag on the team.  These are the biggest obstacles in team performance.  A manager who does these three things well will get great business results.  And if your company is measuring engagement, you’ll have great engagement scores too.


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