Employee Engagement

Engaged in What? New IRF Research Raises Important Issues


The Engaged in What? study, recently published by the Incentive Research Foundation, is must reading for anyone interested in engagement, even though it includes a few oversights and contradictions.

The key finding for ESM is that before organizations get caught up in the engagement “wildfire,” they should first take a close look at exactly what they’re trying to accomplish. If it’s trying to simply boost engagement scores, the authors assert, organizations are missing a critical opportunity to identify the specific roles people can play to help an organization achieve its goals and to design programs that answer the question, “Engaged in What?” This study is a strong argument for using highly experienced practitioners in program design.

The authors also argue that rewards and recognition are critical to supporting the objectives of an engagement program, because the way such programs are designed can actually undermine or contradict the overarching objectives of an engagement initiative. Certainly, we cannot find fault with this conclusion.

It also cites interesting research on the balance between energy and burnout, and notes that the optimal state is high levels of energy without burnout – rather obvious but a noteworthy reminder nonetheless. Burt the study becomes murkier in a number of important areas:

In its history of the engagement movement, it neglects all of the studies of the early SITE Foundation – the precursor organization to the current IRF – as well as the important studies created by the now defunct Forum for People Performance Management and Measurement at the Medill School of Communications at Northwestern University. These oversights include:

  • The Master Measurement Model, which identified a very clear way of identifying and measuring key behaviors and connecting them to performance, created by the highly respected American Productivity and Quality Center.
  • Incentives, Rewards, and Workplace Motivation, a study which clearly identified criteria for successful performance-based incentive programs, as well as clear drivers of engagement – i.e., clear goals, buy-in, capability, rewards and recognition, clear feed-back mechanisms, etc.
  • The Forum for People Performance Management and Measurement conducted extensive early work on the connection between employee/customer engagement and financial performance; none of this was cited, even though the work pre-dates many of the studies referenced in the IRF report and was produced by an academic organization. (Full disclosure, I was involved in all of these organizations in a leadership position. I will excuse the authors for failing to cite the work of the Enterprise Engagement Alliance, since we are not an academic research organization.)

As a result, the study overlooks simple definitions and measurement systems that specifically address the authors’ main concerns about the employee engagement “wildfire,” including lack of a clear definitions or methods of measuring performance. One could easily say the same about advertising, social media, or many other marketing or management fields. (As the great retailer John Wanamaker said back in the early 1900s: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Most would agree the same remains true today.)

On the definition issue, we believe the EEA’s definition, developed with the help of Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, works just fine for most companies: Engagement is “fostering the proactive involvement of the people most critical to success.” We also believe the IRF’s Master Measurement Model provides a darn good start for companies seeking to link engagement to measurable performance outcomes in a positive manner, as it provides a detailed methodology for not only identifying those behaviors but a determining a value for each one to the organization.

In addition, the study raises questions as to the importance of employee engagement in achieving organizational goals, suggesting that employee “enablement” might be just as important. This is a distinction without a difference, since employee enablement is a bedrock condition for employee engagement, not an unrelated factor as the authors imply. Of course an organization cannot benefit from engaged employees unless they are empowered. In making this point, they overlook the obvious fact that, indeed, employee engagement cannot protect organizations from the impact of competitors’ actions, currency fluctuations, economic recessions, commodity prices, etc. In addition, we know that companies can be highly profitable without high levels of employee engagement. That said, the companies in the EEA’s Engaged Company Stock Index, perhaps the best economic indicator of the sustainable impact of engagement over time (and also overlooked by the authors), have outperformed the S&P 500 during the recent market correction.

Furthermore, the report takes a shot at the invaluable work of Gallup in establishing engagement as a key priority, suggesting companies such as Gallup use such surveys as a means to sell more consulting services. While this may be true, the study alludes to the authors’ previous research extolling the benefits of more frequent surveys without disclosing that the author has a company that provides “pulse surveys.”

Finally, and perhaps most egregiously, the study highlights a case study of a so-called engagement program at the Cleveland Clinic as an example of a “roles-based engagement” program, but mentions none of the other engagement tactics – management coaching, communications, learning, etc. – that are the necessary components of any engagement program, and then mentioned as the only outcome increased employee engagement (as measured by Gallup studies, no less). Unless we missed something, this contradicts an earlier assertion in the study that increasing engagement is not enough.

These misgivings aside, the study provides invaluable information for people interested in the engagement field, raises excellent questions for future research, and is a warning to any corporation or solution provider that focuses on the “buzzwords” rather than on the fundamentals.


One comment for “Engaged in What? New IRF Research Raises Important Issues”

  1. A detailed methodology for not only identifying those behaviors but a determining a value for each one to the organization.

    Posted by jason hope | December 9, 2015, 3:00 am

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