CAUTION – Be Careful Using Employee Engagement Scores as Metrics
Updated: Dec 4, 2019
I recently read an article in Harvard Business Review warning about the perils of surrogation.
“Surro-what!?!” you might say.
Surrogation literally just means putting one thing in place of another. When applied to business, it refers to a kind of psychological phenomenon where metrics replace strategy in people’s minds (rather than being merely an indicator of how well strategy is being achieved).
The HBR article puts it this way:
“[When surrogation is happening], a company can easily lose sight of its strategy and instead focus strictly on the metrics that are meant to represent [the strategy].” It’s a subtle, but insidious phenomenon.
This is what happened with the relatively recent Wells Fargo debacle where its employees opened 3.5 million credit card accounts without its customers’ consent. They got in a lot of trouble for that.
So, what happened?
It turns out that Wells Fargo was trying to measure the effectiveness of their strategy to build long-term customer relationships. To assess this, leadership thought they would measure the amount of cross-selling of credit card accounts that was happening among their customers.
Sounds innocent enough, right?
But what happened is that employees and managers confused the metric of cross selling credit card accounts with the strategy of building long term relationships with customers. Once that happened, long term relationships were no longer the thing – the cross-selling statistic was. And that disoriented everyone!
This brings me to my point - something I see all too often in what I do…
Surrogation can happen with employee engagement scores.
Consider this – any organization that attempts to measure employee engagement is likely to have a stated strategy of caring for its employees, valuing high employee morale, decreasing employee turnover, inviting employee feedback, and so on.
These are great things!
The problem arises when these employee engagement scores are metrics that have certain rewards or penalties associated with them. When this is the case, the strategy of having genuinely engaged employees can quickly become surrogated to the engagement scores themselves.
An example of this is no further away than a conversation I had with a close friend the other day. I was talking about tools that track employee engagement. His comment was illustrative:
“Oh yea, my company uses and employee engagement tool. We have to take an employee survey once a year for that stuff. My supervisor told everyone in my group to give really positive answers or else management would make things miserable for all of us. So, I tried to answer so everything looked pretty good.”
Thus, in my friend’s company, a noble idea (i.e. employee engagement) was surrogated to a mere metric (i.e. employee engagement score).
So how do organizations avoid this surrogation trap? Should they stop measuring employee engagement?
Not necessarily, but…
Employee engagement scores should only be a diagnostic – they should never be a metric with goals attached.
if organizations make leadership development a priority, employee engagement scores will rise.
if organizations help employees learn how to resolve conflict, employee engagement scores will rise.
if organizations figure out how to make their employees feel part of the organization’s mission, employee engagement scores will rise, and so on.
The point is to always focus on the real live people who are the ones the organization wants to engage. Engagement scores can serve as an important diagnostic indicator that gives managers insight into how the strategy of getting employees more engaged is working. But don’t use them as a performance metric.
But when it comes to employee engagement scores – beware, the perils of surrogation!
Founder and President, Remedium Solutions LLC