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.

I wouldn’t start from here

There’s an old Irish joke about a city boy from Dublin, who comes out to the country for his cousin’s wedding.

He can’t remember the way, so he stops to ask a farmer for directions. The farmer looks at him, scratches his head, thinks for a moment, frowns and says:

‘You know, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.’

I feel a bit like that when I’m talking to clients and they ask me (always with the same slightly embarrassed tone) how to make their SharePoint pages more engaging.

Let’s face it, if you were setting up your internal channels from scratch, how many of us would choose SharePoint as the hub? It’s an archive system, originally designed for document retrieval. Which is fine, if you want people to use it like a reference library – but not much use if you want to get them engaged with what’s going on in your organisation.

Not surprisingly, every single comms person I know agrees that SharePoint is, at best, a mediocre solution to their communication needs.

And yet, nearly all of them work for organisations that insist they use it, because ‘it’s the industry standard’. It comes as part of Office 365, it’s easy and cost-effective, the IT people are comfortable with it, it’s a done deal.

So the comms people accept it as a regrettable fact of corporate life. And, every now and then, they give us a call to see if we can wave a magic wand and make people interested in using it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to have the work.

But imagine if that happened in your marketing department: ‘We want you to make our brand really cool – but we don’t want to spend money on TV or digital, so we’ve booked you some slots on post office noticeboards…’

Or your logistics department: ‘Yes, I realise articulated lorries are a more efficient way to shift large loads, but the chairman breeds Alpacas, so that’s what we’ll be using…’

It makes me wonder whether these organisations have understood the importance of engaging their people after all – or whether they still think communication is just a box to be ticked.

Because, if you really do want to engage your people, I wouldn’t start from here.

Leading the change

I spent last Saturday at The Big Yak, the self-styled ‘unconference’ for internal comms folk. (If you haven’t been, make sure you wangle a ticket for the next one – by some way the best event in the comms calendar).

In amongst the questions, ideas, debates and free beer (thanks, Facebook), there were two big themes that kept cropping up: culture and leadership.

Specifically, how do we make our business feel more authentic? And how do we persuade our leaders to communicate in a more structured and engaging way?

It was sobering to realise how many leaders of large, public organisations still don’t think communication is a priority. Especially in a week when Theresa May finally acknowledged that her response to the Grenfell disaster (not talking to anyone about it) had been a huge mistake. If even Theresa May has figured this out, there’s no excuse for the rest of us.

It was even more sobering to realise how many senior business leaders still think ‘culture’ is something you can buy by the yard from a branding consultancy. Especially in a week when House of Fraser and New Look joined the ranks of former high street titans who are unravelling faster than they can explain their relevance to a generation that knows it has plenty of choice.

All over this country, there are great big organisations that are kidding themselves they can blag their way to a sustainable future with a swanky logo refresh and a ‘tone of voice’ manual.

They’re wrong.

The only way they can engage people (customers or employees) is by creating an environment where people feel good about their organisation: happy to work for it, happy to buy from it.

And the only way to do that is if the senior leaders of the organisation behave in an honest, open and human way (rather than just talking about it and then fudging the figures to keep the shareholders happy).

The good news is that, when they do finally figure it out, they’ve got an army of great communicators to help them do it.

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.

 

What’s the one big thing?

Imagine you’re lost in Africa with a small group of people. You don’t know where you are, or which direction you should head. You’ve got no food, no water, no transport. And there’s a hippo coming towards you.

What do you do?

The answer is: you get out of the way of the hippo. Hippos are vicious; they kill three thousand people a year in Africa.

That’s not to say the other problems aren’t serious problems. They are – and you’re going to have to deal with them. But the hippo is the one big thing you have to deal with now because, if you don’t, you’ll die.

You know that because you’re smart.

But let’s imagine, for a moment, that you’re not so smart and you don’t realise quite how dangerous the hippo is. Maybe it’s just lumbering towards you in an apparently amiable way. Maybe you remember the BBC2 idents with the adorable baby hippos shot from underneath as they swim in slow motion.

So you and your companions ignore the hippo and start focusing on your other problems. We need clean water, someone says. If we don’t find something to drink in two days, we’ll die. That’s bad, right? Everyone nods and starts looking for water containers.

Then someone else points out that, actually, water isn’t your biggest problem. Your chances of surviving as long as two days in the African bush are so slight that it’s much more important to figure out where you are and find a way out. If you don’t, you might die in much less than two days. So you forget the water containers and start planning escape routes.

And, while you’re doing that, Harry the hippo comes round the corner and tramples you all to death.

That’s what happens to businesses all over the world every day. They get so caught up in their day-to-day problems that they miss the one big thing that’s going to kill them.

50 years ago, that wasn’t such a problem. According to strategy agency Innosight, a business listed in the S&P500 index in 1965 could expect to stay there for 33 years on average. By 2026, the average tenure will be just 14 years. In other words, things are moving faster. It’s getting harder to survive.

That’s why, if you’re a business leader, your first and most important job is to provide focus.

What’s the one big thing you need to get right? The biggest threat? The opportunity you can’t afford to miss? Make sure everyone is absolutely clear about it.

Because, if you don’t, the hippo will get you.

Context is everything

How long would it take you to cover five miles on foot?

Depending on your level of fitness, your answer would probably be somewhere between 30 minutes and three hours.

And you’d be wrong.

Because what I didn’t tell you is that the five miles start at Everest base camp in the Himalayas and go straight up the world’s highest mountain. Even if you made it to the summit, you’d be most unlikely to cover the five miles in less than two days.

That’s the thing with information: it’s all about context.

And that’s why the first job of everyone who communicates inside a business – whether you’re the CEO or a junior project manager – is to provide a context that will make the information meaningful.

What do people need to know? What’s it got to do with them? Why should they care?

Until you can answer those three questions clearly and simply, you may as well not bother communicating.