I’ve just spent a couple of weeks in Disneyworld, often dubbed the happiest place in the world, so it seemed fitting to come back to a few conversations with clients about employee happiness and whether that really delivers engagement in organisational performance.
Organisations conduct engagement surveys for many reasons, but the simplest is based on an assumption that an engaged workforce is likely to deliver the discretionary effort that all businesses seek. There are, of course, associated benefits of staff engagement leading to retention thereby keeping knowledge in-house and reducing the cost of staff recruitment, but for most its ultimately about performance. So it’s interesting that we’ve had a few conversations with clients who have found that the survey numbers don’t always equate to improved performance.
In fact one client recently said that ‘there were too many happy people’ in his organisation. It seems a strange thing to say but we understood what he meant. Are they happy because they are enjoying the challenge of a demanding performance culture or are they happy because they have a stable, secure and easy job that is well paid? You could say that there is nothing wrong with the latter if the business is performing but in today’s world. most of you will know that a workforce that is too settled in their ways will find it harder to adapt to the need for change that keeps organisations competitive.
Another client found that she had ‘best in class’ scores for engagement with their direction but when challenged by their CEO it was clear that the direction itself was not that challenging, or best in class. Engagement with an ‘easy’ strategy is a surefire way to a happy workforce, but it’s not going to give you happy shareholders or keep you competitive.
One review that we were involved in showed that the real reason people were giving good scores about the company being a ‘good place to work’ and a ‘good employer’ was because there was nobody else who paid as well in the district. Similar tendencies show when we conduct our high performing team surveys, where we often find the first run produces high scores. These scores are easily tested by a few reality check questions with teams in our standard review session, where it becomes apparent that the scoring level is often a function of ‘comfort’ rather than effectiveness or performance.
When you consider staff engagement that way, it seems that there may be a necessary tension between happiness and discomfort when it comes to creating performance.
So does this mean we should throw out our engagement surveys and ignore them? Maybe not, but it does seem that the topic of engagement is a little like that of coaching (which, by the way, does increase engagement!). Anyone who coaches, whether as an executive coach or as a manager coach will know that that the first answer to a question is unlikely to provide all the insights that the coachee needs and that you have to dig a little deeper to get to what’s behind it. A few more follow-up questions often reveal the real emotions, the real drivers or the real reasons for any situation, event or action. It’s not that your first question was the wrong one, it just seems to be a natural human response to only touch the surface in a first reply and that we need a few more questions to really explore a topic.
Adopting a coaching mindset to exploring staff engagement may mean that you fully understand why your people are happy (or why they are unhappy for that matter) and put in place appropriate actions rather than the most obvious actions that the first look calls for. And of course one of those actions may even be the development of a coaching culture!