Enabling Engagement: A micro-meta-analysis

Today I’m going to try an touch on a loaded topic without fully tripping the landmine: employee engagement.

So let’s start with a big disclaimer: “Employee engagement” is a peculiar label. It’s defined by different people in different ways. There’s no good direct way to measure it, and the indirect ways are far from perfect. While there are reams of research that have shown a correlation between improved employee engagement and business outcomes, I’ve yet to have seen a highly-rigorous, randomized, controlled test that demonstrates causality. And finally, even if we accept the fact that this is something that we want to improve, opinions differ on who owns that problem and what are the best ways to do so.

No that we got that out of the way, it’s worth calling out what we can learn from the conversation around engagement: under the engagement banner, large groups of smart people set out to study organizations and figure out how to best create an environment in which the individuals in the org are set up to be highly productive and highly committed to the org. And while we need to be very careful about not over-interpreting any sort of measurement, the process of measurement and the conversation around the results gives us a shared language to talk about what we want to improve and structure and cadence to take action that will start moving us in that direction.

I’ve been following the engagement conversation quite closely over the last 4–5 years or so, and was curious to see how do the different “thought leaders” in this space differ in the way they decompose engagement to its enabling components (whether they use the “engagement” label or not).

So I decided to do my own little micro-meta-analysis comparing them. I’ve looked at four key players:

  • Gallup Q12 — Gallup is credited with making “engagement” a thing. Their 12-questions questionnaire it a the core of their research and has been considered to be for many years the “gold standard” for measuring engagement. Gallup’s 12 questions can be divided into 4 categories: basic needs, management support, teamwork, and growth. I’ve decided to use that categorization as a shared taxonomy in comparing the various engagement frameworks.
  • Google — Google’s People Operations team has done some really phenomenal work in the last 5 years or so, applying really rigorous research to exploring organizational performance questions. They have also been kind enough to open-source much of their research on the Re:Work blog. Without labeling as “engagement research” Google has set out on two massive multi-year projects. The first, Project Oxygen, explored “what makes managers effective?”. The second, Project Aristotle, explored “what makes teams effective?”.
  • CultureAmp — CultureAmp is one of the leading vendors of what can be colloquially referred to as “engagement software”. As opposed to other vendors in their space, they dig very deeply into the science behind the business problems that their products are aiming to solve. They employ in-house organizational psychologists that help support the product development process. In designing their employee engagement survey product, CultureAmp developed the LEAD framework, which decomposes engagement enablers into 4 key categories: Leadership, Enablement, Alignment, and Development.
  • The Mind Gym — The Mind Gym is an L&D consultancy, portions of its work were covered here a few weeks back. I’m fairly impressed with the level of scientific rigor they bring into their solutions so I was curious to see how they’re approaching the topic of engagement. Their approach decomposes engagement based on the roles that the individual, manager, leadership, and colleagues play in creating the necessary conditions for strong engagement.

The results are summarized in the table and screenshot below:

Eyeballing the overlap between Gallup, Google, and CultureAmp, I’d say that there’s about 70% overlap between the three frameworks if we ignore some minor framing or focus difference in the way some of the questions/statements were worded. Both Google and CultureAmp got rid of the weirdest Gallup question (“I have a best friend at work”). Google adds more focus on team dynamics. CultureAmp adds more focus on systemic/organizational issues that span more than the immediate team. While I had some preconception that there’s quite a bit of overlap between the Gallup questions and what Google’s Project Oxygen uncovered, seeing how Project Aristotle “filled in the blanks” in many ways was an interesting discovery. And while I like the CultureAmp LEAD categorization a bit more than Gallup’s, the underlying content is not that much different.

The MindGym turned out to be the odd duck of the four. Mostly in a good way. In full transparency, The Mind Gym does have its own 24-question assessment questionnaire that would make their approach look a little more similar to the other three, but only a handful of questions map well. The Mind Gym does seem to take a fundamentally different approach thinking about engagement, viewing it much more as a mindset shift, driven by the individual and supported through all the other players in the organization. My one qualm with their framework is that the scientific approach supporting different pieces of it seems a bit anecdotal/stitched together, but in fairness, it’s an unfair bar to evaluate them against considering the opacity of the academic research behind the other three. It is still the approach that resonates with me the most and the one I’m most curious to better understand and explore further.

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Enabling Engagement: A micro-meta-analysis

GROWing the Retention Tree [Re:Work + Canner]

Retention is a delicate professional topic. Parting ways is a painful experience, regardless of the circumstances. However, it is especially emotionally loaded when it happens unilaterally and takes the other side by surprise. We, therefore, tend to view these situations as inherently “bad.” Where in fact, in some cases, parting ways while still regrettable was the right thing to do, and in some cases, it could and should have been avoided.

Nico Canner, CEO of Incandescent, offers a simple checklist to separate situations in which parting ways was the right thing to do, from situations in which it should and could have been avoided:

How to Retain Talent — And How to Lose People the Right Way

1. Did we have an open dialogue with that individual about their dreams, priorities and concerns, the different kinds of opportunities they were thinking about on the outside, and what might be possible for them within the firm?

2. Did we think creatively and well about the best way for that individual to realize their aspirations within the firm, and identify specific things that would make a positive difference?

3. If we made any commitments based on this dialogue, did we fulfill them?

If we answered “yes” to all three questions, we have done the right things, and parting ways was the right outcome. If we answered “no” to any of the three questions, we could have done more to keep a talented employee.

#3 is relatively straightforward — honor your commitments / don’t make promises you cannot keep. However, consistently answering “yes” to #1 and #2 usually requires putting in place a bit of structure/process to help us ensure that these conversations are taking place consistently and effectively.

How to have these conversations is where some of Google’s contributions to their Re:Work People Ops open-source repository come in particularly handy:

Structure Career Conversations with GROW

GROW is a neat problem-solving/coaching framework that’s been around for a few decades. Variants have evolved over the years but in one of the more popular variations GROW stands for Goal, Reality, Obstacles/Options, Way forward. Google developed a very good career development conversation worksheet around this framework, focusing on four key reflection questions:

  • Goal: What do you want?
  • Reality: What’s happening now?
  • Options: What could you do?
  • Way forward: What will you do?

One of the things I particularly like about it, is that it avoids a common anti-pattern in these interactions that implicitly (over even worse, explicitly) shifts the responsibility for the employee’s career development from the employee to the manager. You are always the primary person responsible for your career development. However, the manager can be a powerful ally in coaching you through the process and helping you to remove obstacles. The shared inquiry framing of the worksheet allows the manager to play the role of a proactive coach in the process, without assuming an unreasonable amount of responsibility in the process.

GROWing the Retention Tree [Re:Work + Canner]

Bounded Specialization (and the limits of human collaboration)

Differences are at the core of any synergetic collaboration effort. The whole ends up being larger than the sum of its part, only when the collaboration leverages the ways in which the collaborators are different, rather than the way in which they are the same.

Consider the difference between two people carrying together a rock that is too heavy for one person to carry on his own, and two people brainstorming a solution to an abstract problem that one of them was not able to solve on his own. The former collaboration utilizes their similarities, while the latter utilizes their differences.

While variation and differences naturally exist in nature, recent studies suggest that specialization, which I’ll define here as the deliberate creation of differences for the purpose of more effective collaboration, is “a human innovation, drawing on our ability to learn and improve by practice, and to trade goods and services”. Ironically, this innovation was inspired by misinterpretation of the ways other animals collaborate.

This innovation has enabled humans to undertake collaboration efforts at unprecedented levels of scope and complexity such as nation states and multinational corporations.

One particular form of specialization seems to be playing a rather pivotal role in such massive collaboration efforts — multi-tiered authority structures, or hierarchies for short.

To avoid a common confusion with “dominance”, Ronald Heifetz, defines authority as “conferred power to perform a service”. Viewed through a specialization-in-support-of-collaboration lens, both parties voluntarily agree to assume “leader” and “follower” roles: “Given your know-how, I give you power to make decisions to accomplish a service, and I’ll follow these decisions as long as it appears to me that they serve my purposes.”

The critical role that authority and hierarchy play in large-scale collaboration efforts is as a mechanism to encapsulate the massive complexity of such endeavors.

But like almost everything that’s taken to its extreme form, specialization, especially of the authority type, has a dark side, which stems from the dichotomous leader/follower distinction.

The dark aspects on the leader side are often summarized as “power corrupts”, but the follower side is not free of sin either. When we fully integrate the follower role into our identity, we are more prone to counterproductive behaviors such as developing “learned helpless”, viewing ourselves as victims, not acknowledging our role in both creating the problem and finding and implementing the solution, and rebelling for the sake of rebellion.

In one of my favorite HBR pieces of all times, Chris Argyris described this dynamic beautifully in an organizational context:

There seem to be two rules. Rule number one is that employees are to be truthful and forthcoming about the world they work in, about norms, procedures, and the strengths and weaknesses of their superiors… Rule number two is that top-level managers, who play an intensely scrutinized role in the life of the company, are to assume virtually all responsibility for employee well-being and organizational success. Employees must tell the truth as they see it; leaders must modify their own and the company’s behavior. In other words, employees educate, and managers act.

How do we manage the dark side of specialization and authority? Well, I don’t think that it’s by getting rid of authority altogether, and “going flat”. That would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Until I come across an alternative solution that’s capable of addressing the complexity encapsulation challenge, paraphrasing Winston Churchill’s famous quote about democracy seems appropriate: “Hierarchy is the worst form of organizing, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.

I can think of three things that we can do instead, all acting to constrain the dynamic in various ways so I’d like to group them under the banner of “bounded specialization”.

1. Bounded by duration

Duration-based elections are a core component of modern democracies and help ensure that authority relationships are not indefinite. Progressive organizations are starting to follow suit as well and elect all members in authority positions, not just their board, to predefined terms.

2. Bounded by context

Distributing authority by narrowing its context can limit its hold on our identity. In a sense, this is an extension of the “separation of powers” concept in democracies where no single body or person has both legislative, executive and judiciary authorities. But it goes beyond that to ensure that we’re followers in some contexts and leaders in others. For example: I trust my Doctor with my medical decisions, and my Financial Advisor with my financial decisions, but I am myself an Educator, so others trust me with the educational decisions for their kids. To bring this back to organizations, this can be done by unbundling the monolithic authority often given to managers (the executive trinity) into separate roles.

3. Bounded by focus

I find this one to be the most challenging to explain, but the most critical to understand, so here goes. The idea here is to blur the dichotomous distinction of roles and responsibilities between leader and follower, manager and individual contributor, or those who hold public office and those who don’t. It’s a little easier to explain in the civil context: consider the difference between a citizen of a country and a resident of a country. They both authorized the government of that country to make decisions on their behalf. They pay their taxes, and they abide by the law. But a citizen also has a right to vote, which requires her to play a more active role in the relationship as both Heifetz and Ret. General Stanley McChrystal point out:

“The concept of social contract may be at the cornerstone of democracy, yet democracy is not so easily achieved in light of our inclination to look to authority with overly expectant eyes. In part, democracy requires that average citizens become aware that they are indeed the principals and that those upon whom they confer power are their agents. They have also to bear the risks, the costs, and the fruits of shared responsibility and civic participation. “ — Ronald Heifetz

“This critical caveat to Tocqueville’s predictions of American democratic success cuts to the heart of what makes democracy tick: a political structure in which decision making authority is — in some ways — decentralized to the voters, rather than concentrated in a monarchic or oligarchic core, requires a high level of political awareness among the public in order to function. If people are not educated enough to make informed decisions at the polls, the feedback system on which democracy is premised will not work. “ — Gen Stanley McChrystal

Now ask yourself this: “how much of our time do we invest in doing our civic duty?” not just paying our taxes and abiding by the law, but playing an active role in the civic process.

For many of us, myself included, the answer is typically “very little, to not at all”. I believe that changing that extreme dynamic in which civil servants are spending 100% of their time on civil matters and many of us spend none of our time on civil matters is critical to managing the dark side of specialization. I’m not advocating for 50–50, that would be missing the point and eliminating all the benefits of specialization. But how about 95–5? Or 99–1? The pattern is applicable to the dynamic within the organization where the distinction is between people who are working in the org (individual contributors, doing the actual work) and people who are working on the org (managers, making the organization better).

I’ll conclude with these unanswered questions: What if every individual contributor spent 5% of his time working on the org? What if every manager spent 5% of her time working in the org?

Bounded Specialization (and the limits of human collaboration)

Goodbye AltSchool, Hello Grammarly!

A few weeks ago, I bid farewell to the friends and colleagues I’ve made over the last couple of years at AltSchool. Today, is my first day with Grammarly and I could not be more excited.

Periods of transition are natural opportunities for reflection, and I did my best to use this one as such.

My tenure at AltSchool, while far from easy, has been a tremendous period of personal and professional growth. For the time being I’ll keep some of the more personal insights private, but on the professional front, upon reflection, a handful of insights bubble up to the top:

  • To create a transformational solution, you have to get the people who experience the pain of the problem, the experts on how to solve it, and the people who can build it, to actively participate in the problem-solving process.
  • Most of our collaboration challenges as adults are rooted in gaps in our own socio-emotional learning. Progressive classrooms are ahead of progressive workplaces in solving that challenge, and a great source for good solutions. Many things that work well with kids, with minor adaptations, also work well with adults.
  • Strong relationships, social connectedness and a sense of belonging are explicit goals in and of themselves.
  • Curiosity and wonder drive self-awareness and personal growth. But sometimes they are dormant and hard to be awakened.

On a slightly more personal note, the past 2 years have been a tremendous validation that continuing to focus my career on the “people” track allows me to bring much more of my unique abilities to my professional life in a way that’s both highly valuable to the organization and highly rewarding to me. Which is part of why I’m so excited to join Grammarly and lead their People function.

But that’s just part of the story. The mission and the team played a key part in this decision. I guess sometimes startup clichés turn out to be true 🙂

First, the mission. Effective interpersonal communication is at the heart of every human collaboration effort. Tying it with one of the lessons-learned above, it’s a good example of a skill that many of us didn’t get to hone and develop fully while at school. The explosion of asynchronous and narrow modes of communication over the last decades, from SMS to Slack, seem to be making matters worse, increasing the likelihood of miscommunication and misunderstanding. Grammarly is taking big strides in growing from its modest-yet-impressive stronghold of Grammatical Error Correction to actualizing this mission in broader and deeper ways, operationalizing cutting edge Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing research in an unprecedented scale.

Second, the team. Grammarly’s EAGER values are deeply ingrained in the organizational DNA and came to life in every human interaction I had with a team member. In addition to making it an amazing group of people to work with, it’s also a testament to the disciplined way in which the current organizational practices were implemented and the importance that the leadership team attributes to organizational health. Spending a few weeks “on the market” in this transition period made me really appreciate how rare this attitude is among the prospective companies that I’ve interacted with during this period, and how essential an ingredient it is to my ability to contribute and add value in the organization that I’m going to be part of.

I am off to starting a new chapter in my professional (and personal) adventure. Can’t wait to see what new experiences and learning opportunities it will unlock!

Goodbye AltSchool, Hello Grammarly!