Engagement: Cause Or Effect?

July 20, 2010

When you measure one thing and call it something else, it’s impossible to meaningfully interpret your results. Poor research design does not produce actionable knowledge.

As I pointed out in “Engagement Soup,” the Gallup Q12 does not measure engagement. Questions like “I have a best friend at work,” “There is someone at work who encourages my development,” and “At work, my opinions seem to count,” really indicate conditions that might cause engagement, but they do not indicate the degree to which any given employee is engaged or disengaged. These are good questions to ask for sure, but to ask them of your employees and then proceed to label your results employee engagement is misguided and irresponsible.

A good measure of engagement starts with a good definition of engagement as an effect manifest in the behaviors of employees at work. As I reported yesterday, one definition that meets that criteria is “the simultaneous investment of an individual’s physical, cognitive, and emotional energy in active, full work performance.”  Armed with this very specific definition, you could then proceed to identify indicators of the extent to which employees exhibit this physical, cognitive, and emotional energy at work.

A good measure of engagement must not confound its causes with the effect.

Questions like “I work with intensity on my job,” (physical engagement) “I feel positive about my job,” (emotional engagement) and “At work, my mind is focused on my job,” (cognitive engagement) accomplish the goal of measuring employee engagement because they are effect indicators that do not in any way attempt to provide knowledge about why someone might manifest this intensity, positiveness, and focus in their behavior at work. Knowledge of what might cause someone to think, feel, and behave this way must come from an entirely different set of questions, questions like “I know what is expected of me at work,” (Q12).

And you cannot assume that because the cause is present that the effect will also be present. Sorry, but the only way to really know about the effect is to measure it separately and directly. And establishing that the cause actually produced the effect is very difficult, especially in complex social systems.

If you claim to be measuring engagement in your workplace, are you tapping causes, effects, or a mix of both? If you don’t know the answer to this question or don’t understand why it’s important, then your are wasting your time.  Even if you don’t know it, I guarantee you that your employees do.

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Comments (2)

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  1. davidburkus says:

    Is it possible that these new questions suffer from bias? For instance, I know few people who would score themselves low at “I work with intensity at my job.” The Q12, while not focusing on engagement directly, does eliminate this bias because it “tricks” respondents into providing answers that reveal engagement.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Of course. Hard to design questions that don’t have some type of response bias. If I had to answer that question, I would have a tough time. When I think about teaching, I would be at the high end of the scale, but for other things I am assigned to do (committees, office hours) I would only be moderate. Thanks! bret