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.

Enabling Engagement: A micro-meta-analysis

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