Tag Archives: employee engagement

Fully understanding employee engagement

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I’ve been speaking today at a joint event with Avensure on the subject of Employee Engagement.

In my talk I covered why engagement is so important, how to go about measuring it, and a case study of one of our clients who has done a great job of building a culture of engagement.

I also spent quite a bit of time defining engagement, which can mean a lot of different things to different people.

Cause, effect, or something else?

I argue that to use the concept of engagement properly, it’s essential to understand and measure the state itself as distinct from the culture and management practices that cause engagement and the beneficial staff behaviours that result from engagement.
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You need to know the causes of engagement (so that you can improve) and you need to know the outcomes (so that you can prove it’s worth improving), but it’s a mistake to mix those three things together in the measurement or analysis. Be clear about what you’re measuring, and why.

Engaged with…what?

The other subtlety of measuring engagement is that you can be engaged with your job, but not to your employer, and vice versa. Both types of engagement are important, but they can have very different causes and effects. If you love what you do, but hate your employer, what’s to stop you leaving to do the same job somewhere else? We’d expect role engagement to correlate less well to retention than organisational engagement.

On the other hand, you might get on great with your manager and colleagues, but not feel inspired by your role. Employees can be satisfied and engaged with the organisation, but reluctant to fully engage with doing the best possible job for customers. Role engagement can correlate better with productivity and customer quality.

Most jobs have some element of drudgery and some opportunities for self-expression and challenge. It’s those challenges that make roles engaging for the right people, so the importance of organisational engagement is greater for businesses with employees who have limited opportunity for self-expression. If you can’t make them love their job, you can at least make them love you.

A complex picture

To understand the full importance of employee engagement, you need to understand it in all its messy glory. That means having clear, separate, measures of:

  • The causes of engagement
  • Role engagement
  • Organisational engagement
  • The effects of engagement

Put all those together and you have the basis for a sophisticated understanding of your people, and a clear way forward if you choose to invest in building a culture of engagement.

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Understanding customers

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If people ask what I do, my one-sentence answer tends to be “I help organisations understand their customers”.

What does that actually mean?

The tools we use are well-established quantitative and qualitative research techniques; all of which fundamentally boil down to one thing: talking to people.

Easy. Sort of.

No doubt you’ve seen the ever-growing hype around Behavioural Economics? It’s a field that has an enormous amount to teach those of us whose job is to understand other people, and particularly the way they make decisions.

We know, for example, that people are really bad at predicting their future behaviour (“Yes, I’ll definitely eat more salad and fewer doughnuts this year”), and nearly as bad at explaining why they did things.

Does that mean that research based on asking people questions is a waste of time?

I don’t believe so. But it does mean that it’s a good idea to focus your questions on the right things.

If you want to know about past/current behaviour it’s best to use observation or other sources of data if you can. If that’s not an option then people are fairly reliable about specific events, especially soon after them, and pretty unreliable on general patterns of behaviour (“How often do you go to the gym?”).

Future behaviour is tricky, because asking people is pretty much the only option. But consider the way you ask it, and see if you can set yourself up for more accuracy. If you want to know whether people will buy your product, don’t ask a focus group (they’ll all say yes to be polite), see if you can get them to part with cash on Kickstarter. If that’s not possible, frame it as a choice—would they buy your product instead of their current supplier?

Understanding how people will behave if you make a change (to a website, store layout, etc.) is best done by experiment. The more concrete you can make the future state for customers, through actual change or prototyping, the more accurate your findings.

Motivations are notoriously difficult for people to know, let alone explain. There’s no harm asking the question, but there’s often more insight from a good understanding of psychology than from people themselves. Rather than asking people why they did something, ask them how they feel about the choice they made or the product they chose, and then do the hard work in the analysis.

Attitudes form the mainstay of most research work, whether it’s brand associations, customer satisfaction, or employee engagement. We’re talking about thoughts and feelings, and again there are well-established limitations in what people are capable of telling you. The halo effect is a big one—if you want a meaningful attitude survey you have to work hard to ensure you get deeper than a single overall impression. Adding more questions won’t help, in fact it’ll make it worse.

Behavioural Economics teaches us that research based on asking people questions is limited, but it also gives us a framework to understand what those limitations are and how they work. It is not a threat to market research, in my view, but a coming of age.

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