Strategic alignment and employee engagement have both been proposed as drivers of organisational performance. Could these drivers also be related to each other?
Low levels of employee engagement in organisations have been a concern for some time. This is based on the premise that higher levels of engagement are associated with better performance. You may have commissioned or participated in one of several commercially available surveys intended to measure engagement. The surveys request employees of participating organisations to respond to a set of questions. Once employees have responded, the company doing the survey provides analyses of the responses, usually benchmarked to other organisations in the same industry, location and so on.
There are two aspects of this process that are useful to keep in mind. First, the relationship between the survey response data and organisational performance is associative, not necessarily causal. This means organisations with high engagement appear to perform better, but this does not necessarily mean that if scores on employee engagement go up, performance will improve as a result. In one organisation I worked with, the CEO reflected on the possibility that we might inadvertently be doing things that make employees feel obliged to respond favourably to the surveys. From a normative perspective this was clearly not the right thing to do, partly because we would then be gaming the system, but worse, we would be compromising the trust employees placed on the management team. That would of course be a problem, but even it weren’t, what we were doing wouldn’t be good from an instrumental perspective. We might end up with employees expecting better and better goodies for ever smaller improvements in the engagement scores. In many organisations it doesn’t help that management is measured for financial incentives on engagement survey results.
The second problem with the process is that we don’t really know how employee engagement works. This means whatever action we take to address low scores in engagement surveys is based on a formist interpretation, in which we are responding based on correlations rather than cause-effect. For instance, is it possible that as organisational performance improves, employees become more engaged, i.e. the cause-effect relationship works in the opposite direction? Perhaps the two are completely unrelated and both are the result of an entirely different cause? In one survey I analysed, the management team was very happy with an increase in engagement scores, until we noticed that the increase could easily been the result of changes at the level of the global organisation rather than anything we had done locally. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of readily available knowledge about the causal relationships between engagement and performance. The academic literature does provide some models, but these still need validation before they can be applied in practice. So as far as engagement is concerned, we are not even in the mechanist world.
While exploring strategic alignment as part of my research in an organisation over a period of time, we implemented a number of changes specifically intended to improve alignment. Over this period we also participated regularly in employee engagement surveys. This presented a great opportunity to investigate, based on a longitudinal (multi-year) study, if there was any relationship between alignment and engagement. The findings showed a significant correlation. There did, indeed, appear to be a relationship between what we were doing to improve alignment and the scores in the engagement surveys.
Of course, there is always the possibility that the findings represent a correlation, i.e. that the initiatives to improve alignment and the associated increasing employee engagement just happened to take place at the same time. But if there is a plausible explanation for the relationship, i.e. if we can move from a formist to a mechanist interpretation, we would have made significant progress. It would mean that we are no longer relying on chance or intuition to improve engagement. We would be using a model that we can validate based on more data, refine as we learn more about how it works and operationalise so we become better at using it to improve engagement. Over the next weeks let’s take a look at the findings and whether the explanation makes sense.
If you are interested in learning more about organisational alignment, how misalignment can arise and what you can do about it join the community. Along the way, I’ll share some tools and frameworks that might help you improve alignment in your organisation.