Is optimism a competitive advantage? The link between a company’s employee engagement is real: the more engaged the workers, the higher the sales and profits…. Companies don't directly measure the optimism of their employees. Instead they rely on engagement scores, typically gathered by outside consultants who exhaustively survey the staff. As in: Does your boss support you in getting your job done? Do you have a best friend at work? (Business Week Online, August 13, 2009).
I am dumbfounded. How can BW claim that optimism is a competitive advantage when they admit the companies they reference are NOT directly measuring optimism? No worries, these trusted and well compensated consultants are measuring engagement, and that is the same as optimism, right? Wrong!
And I have more bad news – they are NOT measuring engagement either. These are the twelve magic engagement questions referred to in the BW article.
Engagement is an effect, such that someone might be able to say “I am engaged” and we should be able to observe and evaluate the degree to which this attitude is manifest. Are ANY of these twelve questions able to capture the degree to which someone is engaged? NO!
Should we believe that BECAUSE you are engaged, you are given the materials and equipment you need to do the work right? Or is it that because you are given the materials and equipment to do the work right you are engaged? Does your engagement at work cause people to want to be friends with you, or is it that because you have supportive relationships at work that you might be engaged? Get the picture?
These questions are NOT effect indicators of engagement. They are instead causal indicators – of something. The persuasive consulting company believes these things cause engagement, but they don’t measure psychological engagement so it remains an empirical question! Worse, they say they are measuring engagement when they clearly are not, and companies that should know better don’t.
Here are a few examples of effect indicators of engagement: I am immersed in my work; when I get up in the morning, I feel like going to work; I feel very happy when I am working intensely. To the extent you answer these in the affirmative we know that you are engaged. We don’t know what caused you to be engaged, but we have good reason to believe you are because we can measure the effects.
Want to know if a tree is healthy? Look at the leaves and the fruit. These are indicators of the health of the tree. Just because we give our tree lots of fertilizer, water, and sunlight does NOT mean it is healthy. These are all very smart things to do, but they do not guarantee health, and the only way to evaluate health is to examine the tree and not its environment.
But what about the business results, those higher sales and profits? If you ever do find that data published in a peer-reviewed format (consultant promotional material does NOT count), remember this simple fact: correlation is not the same as causality. Establishing the case that an individual level psychological construct (that’s what engagement is) can cause a company level aggregate measure is VERY, VERY, VERY difficult.
I remain extremely skeptical.