“Employee engagement, at the moment, is in a weird situation,” says Marcus Buckingham, a researcher, author, speaker, and head of the Marcus Buckingham Company (TMBC).
You’re likely already aware of the dismal state of employee engagement in the U.S. and abroad, but the “weird” situation of which Buckingham speaks goes much further beyond that. In his opinion, we have more than just an employee engagement problem: we have an engagement measuring problem.
“Our entire employee engagement approach is measuring engagement at the wrong place and delivering the data to the wrong audience,” Buckingham says.
We Should Be Measuring Engagement at the Team Level
What Buckingham means is this: currently, employee engagement studies approach engagement through the organization as a whole. For example, research focuses on what employee engagement is like at Google or Apple, but what the research should really focus on is what employee engagement is like in the individual teams that make up Google or Apple. Buckingham maintains that there are bigger differences in engagement levels between teams at Google or Apple than there are between the companies themselves.
This is because “team leaders are, by far, the biggest drivers of employee engagement,” Buckingham says. “Google’s policy’s at the center don’t drive engagement; Apple’s policies at the center don’t drive engagement. It all happens team leader by team leader.”
Our engagement measuring efforts also suffer from another problem: researchers are not calibrating their results by country, meaning global engagement surveys fail to accurately reflect the reality of employee engagement worldwide.
“This means that Brazilian and Mexican people will always appear to be the most engaged people in the world — which isn’t true, actually,” Buckingham says. “They just respond to scales differently than, say, German and Chinese and Japanese people do. If you don’t apply your calibration, your data is all wrong.”
Our engagement data is all wrong, because we’re not measuring engagement properly. Perhaps, then, it should come as no surprise that global employee engagement has been stagnant for roughly the last decade: how can we address the situation when we’re not even working with the right numbers?
Current Engagement Surveys Report to the Wrong Audiences
The problems with our employee engagement surveys are further exacerbated by the fact we don’t deliver data to the people who need it most — the team leaders, those key drivers of engagement.
“All of our employee engagement tools currently are set up to measure engagement through organizational structure, and then deliver the results to HR first, and then senior leadership second, and then the third and final people who get it are the team leaders themselves, where engagement actually happens,” Buckingham says.
But, if team leaders are the ones who make the difference in engagement, then we should be giving team leaders — not organizations — the tools they need to measure engagement. Team leaders should be the ones delivering surveys to teams and gathering reliable data.
The Marcus Buckingham Company Introduces the Global Engagement Index
Rather than let this mess continue, Buckingham and his company decided to create the StandOut Global Engagement Index (GEI), which they call “the first and only globally calibrated employee engagement index.”
“The intent of [the GEI] was to be able to create a reliable tool that every team leader around the world could use for free to measure how engaged their teams were,” Buckingham says.
The GEI has three major aims, according to TMBC:
- to measure “the overall level of engagement in each country” and “establish a stable baseline for each country”;
- to provide “all team leaders with a tool to compare their team’s engagement level against the country-specific baseline”;
- and to reveal, “country by country, which conditions in the workplace are most likely to drive team members to become fully engaged at work.”
The Method Behind the GEI
To build the GEI, TMBC began by selecting the right questions.
“You do that by looking at high-performing teams and low-performing teams, and you ask the high-performing teams a list of survey questions, and you ask the low performers the same list,” Buckingham explains. “Then, you remove all the questions where there’s no difference between what the high performers and low performers say. You keep only those items where the people in the high-performing teams agree strongly with the questions and the people on the low-performing teams don’t.”
In other words, you only keep the questions that seem to show “a predictive relationship with performance criteria.”
In order for employee engagement surveys to be meaningful at all, we need to make sure we’re asking questions that are actually related to business outcomes — otherwise, we’re wasting our time.
For example, you may feel it’s important to ask employees a question like “Do you have good work-life balance?”, but Buckingham found that is “actually a terrible question.”
“Who agrees to that question and who doesn’t agree to that question shows no relationship to business outcomes at all,” Buckingham says. “That doesn’t mean that work-life balance isn’t important; it just means that question isn’t a good question.”
TMBC narrowed the list down to eight questions that showed relationships to employee performance. This was the questionnaire that TMBC presented to a representative sample of the working populations in each country it surveyed. This allowed the TMBC to gather its raw data — “basically a whole bunch of answers on a scale of 1-5,” Buckingham says.
The next step was to calibrate the raw data by country, which TMBC did by analyzing how each country responded to the scales and the questions.
“You’re basically answering questions like, ‘Do Chinese people use extremes of the scale as much as Germans do?’” Buckingham explains. “You’re trying to ensure that you’re not giving credit to a whole bunch of fours and fives in Mexico, simply because everybody in Mexico kind of puts fours and fives.”
Without calibration, Buckingham says, it would look as if Brazil were more engaged than China is. But with calibration, you would find that Brazilian people use the extremes of the scale more often than Chinese people, who tend to use the middle of the scale. Thus, after calibrating the results, you would find that China is actually one of the two most engaged countries in the world (more on that in a minute).
“In one sense, you’re trying to figure out where the middle is. In every country, where’s the average?” Buckingham says. “[That way,] when you start talking about some country being more engaged than another, you’re all using the same middle point.”
According to TMBC’s survey, the U.S. and China had the most engaged workforces in the world. But, here’s the thing: only 19 percent of the workers in these countries were engaged. To put that in perspective, Gallup’s latest employee engagement poll had U.S. workers at 31.5 percent engagement.
After measuring employee engagement correctly, per Buckingham, it seems the picture may be even bleaker than we initially thought.
So, why do the most engaged countries have such low levels of engagement? And what can we do about it? Read part two to find out.