The FT’s Lucy Kellaway has bumbled into a wasps’ nest…

Engagement matrixNormally, I love Lucy Kellaway’s writing in the FT: pithy, perceptive and unfailingly astute when it comes to management issues. But her recent piece sub-titled “All this stuff about employee engagement is nonsense” is, sadly, about as flawed as it gets. And alarmingly so for an FT journalist.

The article in question is here: “Worker bees should be left to bumble”. In short, she argues that the feeblest/worst performing employees are “often” the most engaged. But the arguments lying behind this are dreadful.

So, (sorry Lucy!) here are some reasons why you’re plain wrong:

The dangers of a sample of one:

n=1 is rarely a good statistic. The FT article is based around one single piece of “research” and that itself is based around one single study of a single organisation. It’s hardly a representative sample.

  • The vast majority of studies into the impact of engagement on the bottom-line show that higher levels of engagement tend to lead to higher levels of performance (individual, team and corporate).
  • Each and every piece of our own research with over 150 FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 organisations finds a positive relationship between employee engagement and performance.
  • The vast majority of macro studies in this field (by the IES, by Aon Hewitt, by Gallup, by Towers Watson, by Kenexa) have found the same.

There are outliers in every data set but this is a pretty exceptional one! Basing a conclusion such as “All this stuff about employee engagement is nonsense” on a single study of a sole company hardly deserves the copy-space it’s been given.

Marketing pieces rarely make for great research:

As ever, the best research tends not to come from such a blatant piece of marketing. A glance at any of the more in-depth research in this area will show you a totally contradictory conclusion (see for example, the work done recently by the Government taskforce on engagement in the UK)

Chickens and eggs have always been a problem:

The “study” on which the piece is based also creates a huge confusion around the direction of causality. It’s entitled: “Job performance not a predictor of employee engagement”. We would agree, absolutely. The causality runs the other way.

All of our studies over time with large organisations, such as Sainsbury’s, the UK-based retailer with 150,000 people, have found that managers tend to learn first how to get their colleagues engaged; then they act on the levers to achieve stronger engagement; then performance improves as a result. It’s not rocket science, but the direction in which this runs is vital: engagement is a leading indicator; it is not an outcome in itself.

We need to focus on the real issues here:

The poor FT article and the dreadful source on which it is based also neglect to focus on some of the key issues:

Engagement is not about “happiness”: Lucy Kellaway gets very confused about what true engagement means. It is not about happiness. It is not about satisfaction. It is about performance.

Organisations should be engaging their employees principally to achieve their business objectives (growth, profitability, customer service excellence). We know that employee “happiness” and wellbeing are also correlated with better engagement but this is not the principle reason businesses are focused on the issue.

We need to focus on what companies crave: If we are ever to lift the core economies out of recession, performance levels amongst employees will be vital.

The companies recovering quickest from the recession (or those that have weathered it best or succeeded in spite of it) are those with the most engaged workforces. Where employees are aligned with the strategy, focused on the customer and want to perform to the best of their abilities, that is where CEOs are getting competitive advantage.

Managers need to be segmenting their approach: finally, the article really misses the key point.

Yes, there will always be some outliers in your own workforce (engaged people who are not performing or high performers who are not engaged) but the art of great management is to address each employee segment differently to help all groups both succeed and stay with the organisation.

The matrix below provides some guidance for how managers should be dealing with each group:

So, where do you stand on the Kellaway/ engagement debate? Do you really believe dis-engaged employees will be the highest performing in your own organisation? I look forward to reading your views.