In January 2011, the International Journal of Human Resource Management sent out a call for papers declaring that 'employee engagement' was a term with "...many unanswered questions" (Tuss et. al., 2011). These unanswered questions revolved around the status of employee engagement as a construct, how the supposed link between engagement and performance works and whether engagement is something that can be managed.
We believe it's time that science stepped in to clear up the mess. For years consultants have developed measures that are scientifically flimsy at best, and particularly because there is absolutely no evidence at this stage that existing engagement measures lead to any kind of increase in actual organisation performance.
One of the main reasons for a lack of any evidence that engagement leads to performance rests in the methodology for how these measures are collected. In essence, most measures are based on a set of generic questions that consultants believe work for all organisations in all organisational growth phases and all market positions. A good example of this is the well known "Gallup Q12", a survey with 12 generic questions given to all organisations despite their specific circumstances. Unfortunately, any methodology that promotes a generic measurement of human resource practices (and worse, gives the organisation a percentile rank benchmark measurement against those generic measures), places the Human Resource Manager as far away from the strategic decision making table as they can possibly get.
Human resources practices are the "...deeply-embedded, firm specific, dynamic routines by which a firm attracts, socializes, trains, motivates, evaluates, and compensates its human resources." (Amit and Belcourt, 1999, p 171). Hence, if these are the same 'best practices' as everyone else is using, it will be hard to distinguish your organisation from any other organisation in your industry. This is clearly the antithesis of what it means to be strategic, making benchmarking of human resource practices in the organisation a patently bad move for human resources managers who want to take a strategic role in their organisation.
The best kind of strategy in an organisation maximises the resources that already exist within that organisation. Since every organisation has a unique set of people working in it, a unique position in the market and a customised business plan and set of objectives, we contend that the strongest human resources strategy is one that maximises that uniqueness. This approach enhances existing strengths, rather than wasting time trying to improve things that don't impact on the organisation's strategy execution anyway. This is yet another major methodological problem of generic engagement surveys as organisations who use generic surveys quite often end up working on things that make no impact on the organisation's strategic direction; they simply have no link to the organisation's strategy.
It seems clear, then, that clearing up the employee engagement area is going to take a major shift in our thinking. We're going to have to ditch generic surveys and the idea of 'best practice'. We're going to have to start developing processes for HR practices that are individually designed to drive strategy and build organisational uniqueness. This will drive inexperienced and less knowledgeable consultants into the shadows as those with a deeper understanding of HR strategy, and the organisation performance potential for HR strategy, really come to the fore.
- Amit, R. and Belcourt, M. (1999). "Human Resources Management Processes: A Value-Creating Source of Competitive Advantage", European Journal of Management, 17 (2), pp. 174-181.
- Tuss, K., Soane, E., Delbridge, R., Alfes, K., Shantz, A., and Petrov, G. (2011). "Employee Engagement, Organisational Performance and Individual Well-being: Exploring the evidence, developing the theory", The International Journal of Human Resources Management, 22 (1), pp. 232-233.
Louise Metcalf has a PhD in Leadership and Sustainability, from Science at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. She has spent nearly two decades working in Organisational Psychology. Louise is a registered psychologist and an endorsed Organisational Psychologist. She is also a supervisor of Organisational Psychologists registered nationally.
Louise's leadership instrument consulting was recognized for its ground breaking technique in 2001. She is an international consultant in change management, leadership development and leader coaching. Louise is a respected member of the Macquarie University Masters of Organisational Psychology teaching team and her research is published in the esteemed Journal of Business Ethics. She is also one of the top 100 Sustainability Leaders in the world.