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What does having a best friend at work say about employee engagement?

March 18, 2014

By Charley Morrow

The importance of employee engagement is somewhat new, and many people are still trying to understand it. But, in many organizations, more time has been put into measuring engagement than understanding it. And many employee engagement assessments are really just an index of questions that are statistically, but not meaningfully, connected to business outcomes.

In many organizations, rating and improving engagement is not about conducting meaningful surveys and organizational learning. It’s simply about measurement and compliance. Consider the common survey question “Do you have a best friend at work?”

Seems like a nice thing to have, but is it really important?

When Gallup introduced their Q12 Meta-Analysis to make sense of the relationship between engagement and organizational outcomes, and Marcus Buckingham wrote First Break All the Rules to illustrate what successful managers do to achieve superior results, they chose to ask specific questions about statistic relationships. This is a great, important breakthrough idea—ask questions that are demonstrated to be important!

It turns out that in many organizations “having a friend at work” is statistically related to retention. The problem is that this question-to-retention relationship is not obvious, and the relationship does not hold in all organizations. The crazy thing is that managers are making decisions, and developing improvement plans, based on the answer to this question.

The challenge with these empirical relationships however is that they may not have an obvious meaning. On the surface, the answer to the question “Do you have a best friend at work?” looks like a question about socializing. Socializing is nice, but not everyone comes to work to fulfill social needs. So, if the point of employee engagement is to improve the success of the business in partnership with employees, why not make the intent of the assessment more obvious?

If you want to find out if employees are going to stick around, one strategy is to simply ask “Would you prefer to work in a different place for the same pay and benefits?” or “Do you plan to be working here for the next few years?”

An additional problem with this empiricism is when a manager is presented with a question that’s only statistically related to an outcome, it may not always be applicable to his or her department. Maybe there’s no turnover and people just don’t really engage socially—they just do their work and go home. In this situation, the question may be meaningless.

The better way of measuring and analyzing employee engagement is to simply ask the right questions—those that have a conceptual and meaningful relationship to business strategy and outcomes.

As I talked about in my last blog post, your model of engagement should fit with your company strategy. If you are building a survey, ask yourself  “what do we need from our workforce to be successful as an organization?” The answer to this question can then be translated into an engagement survey that can measure for those critical skills such as interdepartmental collaboration or a simple obsession with customers.

Useful engagement surveys also often ask open-ended questions such as “What could the organization do to enable you to do your job better?” or “What barriers prevent you from fully contributing to the organization’s success?” The answers to these questions will help you and your organization grow and improve much more than knowing if your workers have a best friend at work or not.

Building engagement is about building meaning in organizations—the more organizations can do to make sense of the organization, employees, and how to manage them, the more successful their leaders will be.

Are you asking the right questions to find out how engaged your employees are?

Having a best friend at work doesn’t really connect to measurable business results. Click here to learn more about what does.

More about Charley

Charley Morrow is Vice President of Assessments at Linkage. He has over 20 years of experience designing, implementing, and evaluating training, individual assessment, and organizational-transformation interventions. He’s an expert in developing assessments and methodologies for individual, team, and organizational motivation and performance. Follow him on Twitter @CharleyMorrow.


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