When engagement isn’t engaging

‘When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure’.

That’s Goodhart’s law (named after the economist Charles Goodhart, who first articulated it to explain why private enterprise principles introduced by the Thatcher government hadn’t worked very well).

I thought about it this morning, when I was going through my emails and found one inviting me to ‘The Engaging Employees Conference’ in London.

Of the 32 scheduled speakers, the one that most caught my eye was the HR Director of Wonga, a business that collapsed five weeks ago and is currently being wound down by the administrators.

Since the sub-title of the conference is ‘Optimising Performance’, having a speaker from a failed business is probably inconvenient for the organisers. But it’s also a timely reminder for delegates of what they should really be focused on.

The fetish for measuring employee engagement has been steadily gaining ground since Gallup first pioneered it in the 1990s, with their Q12 Survey. This invited employees to answer (anonymously) twelve different questions about their experience of work. ‘Do you understand what the business is trying to achieve?’; ‘Do you understand what’s expected of you?’; ‘Do you have a best friend at work?’ and so on.

The idea is that, if you keep asking the same questions every six months, the movement in the scores will tell you which bits you’re getting right, which bits you need to focus on and, ultimately, how engaged your employees are.

According to Gallup, businesses with high Q12 scores demonstrate significantly better performance: lower turnover of staff, higher sales growth, greater productivity, better customer satisfaction scores. Which is why nearly every large organisation nowadays carries out some kind of engagement survey.

The problem, as Wonga and others have found, is that improving your engagement score does not necessarily lead to improved performance.

It’s a perfect example of Goodhart’s law in operation.

An engagement survey is useful if it helps you build a true picture of the experience your employees have at work. As soon as you turn it into a target, you’re blurring that picture and encouraging managers to ‘game’ the numbers so that their score always shows improvement, even though the underlying experience may not. It’s the tail wagging the dog.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m 100% in favour of engaging employees.

I just think the best way to do it is by focusing on the things that will improve their experience of working in your organisation.

Not asking them the same questions over and over again – and then fiddling the numbers to tell a story they don’t recognise.

We’re all in this together (yeah, right)

It’s a funny word, collaboration.

Seventy years ago, it was the worst kind of insult. It meant you’d betrayed your country and helped the enemy. If you were identified as a collaborator in post-liberation Paris in 1945, you’d be marched through the street with your head shaved, so your neighbours could jeer at you and throw rotten fruit.

But times have changed and the word has recovered a more positive meaning. Politicians now speak proudly of ‘cross-party collaboration’, fading music stars ‘collaborate’ with edgy hip-hop producers – and big companies want to unlock a brave new world of creativity by ‘making it easy for our people to collaborate and share ideas’.

The trouble is: why would you want to?

I mean, it’s easy to see what’s in it for the company. They want their employees to be more ‘open’ and ‘giving’, to embrace the hackathon culture of hip Silicon Valley tech companies; to tap into a sparkling well of innovation and value.

But it’s a lot less easy to see what’s in it for everyone else. Employees who do collaborate often find it doesn’t benefit them – quite the reverse, in fact. They see their ideas co-opted by others and used as a stepping stone to promotions and rewards that pass them by. So why bother?

The problem is that we want collaboration, but we encourage competitiveness.

We want people to work as a team, but we reward individuals.

In its most recent annual survey, the High Pay Centre noted that, between 2016 and 2017, the average annual pay of a FTSE 100 boss rose by 11% to £3.93m. That’s roughly 145 times more than their average employee earns.

Now, as it happens, I know a few FTSE 100 bosses – and they are (mostly) smart and charismatic and capable people. Not the uncaring, out-of-touch corporate fat cats lampooned in the tabloid press.

But the point I always try to make to them is that, if you really want people to collaborate, engage and share their best ideas, you need to create an environment where they feel comfortable and appreciated for doing it.

Because, if you don’t, it won’t be long till collaboration is a dirty word again.

Make it emotional

When senior managers lock themselves in a room to define a mission for their business, the example they’re often told to aim for is John Kennedy’s ‘Man on the Moon’ speech.

I’ve heard four separate consultants use this example and every one of them made the same mistake. They each identified the famous goal – ‘land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth’ – as coming from Kennedy’s speech about the space programme at Rice University, Texas in September 1962.

In fact, it came from a speech he made to Congress sixteen months earlier, the ninth item in a packed programme that also took in foreign policy, defence and the economy.

Why does this matter? Because it tells us three things:

First, that Kennedy and his advisors were smart enough to recognise when they were on to a winner.

Second, that the best way to establish an idea you’ve recognised as a winner is to keep talking about it.

And, third, that big ideas are all about meaning: people won’t remember the specific words you used, but they will remember how those words made them feel.

This is because your brain finds it a lot easier to remember things when they prompt an emotional response. A strong feeling of excitement, or pleasure, or humour, or sadness, releases dopamine into your brain – and this acts like a kind of mental post-it note, making it easy for your sub-conscious to access that memory.

What Kennedy did was to outline a bold, exciting, uplifting adventure – you can bet there was dopamine exploding in brains all over the country.

Millions of people heard Kennedy’s speech. Very few of them would have been able to remember a single one of the 2,207 words that went into it. They didn’t need to – they only needed to remember the gist.

When Kennedy later visited NASA’s Houston base to check on progress, he met a janitor who, replying to a question about what he did, said ‘Mr President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon’.  That’s engagement.

Even tax-payers loved it – and he was telling them he was going to be spending a lot more of their money.

Would the audience have been so excited if Kennedy had said ‘our mission is to make NASA the pre-eminent global leader in aeronautical technology’? Or would they have preferred lower taxes?

Engaging people with your business is all about emotion and belief. If you get it right, it makes it easy for you to attract and motivate people who believe in what you believe in.