Self-Engagement [Murphy]


This piece turned out to be trickier to write than I initially envisioned, since it required a delicate balancing act of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Since it’s a highly insightful “baby” and there’s quite a bit of “bathwater”. 

Following one of Mark Murphy’s Forbes articles, I came across this more detailed blog post: 

Employee Engagement Is Less Dependent On Managers Than You Think

The study

The team at Leadership IQ analyzed results from ~11,300 responses to uniquely-designed engagement surveys, exploring the correlation between an outcome engagement metric and two groups of engagement drivers: 

  • Traditional engagement drivers —  which focus on the support provided to the employee by their manager and the organization: “my manager recognizes my accomplishments”, “my job responsibilities are clearly defined”, etc. 
  • Self-engagement drivers — 18 outlooks and attitudes over which employees have direct and personal control: “I expect that more good things will happen to me than bad things” (optimism), “I will succeed if I work hard enough” (internal locus of control), etc. 

The baby

First, the outcome (dependent) metric they chose really resonates with me: “working at my company inspires me to give my best effort”. 

While there’s no perfect way to describe engagement, this definition which focuses on discretionary effort maps neatly to the “Will” component in Andy Grove’s equations of: 

Effectiveness = Will + Skill (more on that here).

If we are gearing our working on work efforts towards a specific end-state, a state in which we are all giving our work our best efforts fits the bill a lot more cleanly than an eNPS metric (“How likely are you to recommend your company as a place to work?”).

Second, despite some analytical shortcomings (more on that soon), their results provide some compelling evidence that several self-engagement drivers (optimism, internal locus of control, resilience, assertiveness, and meaning) correlate with the engagement metric more strongly than some traditional drivers (receiving recognition, openness to ideas, supervisor trustworthiness, teamwork, clear job responsibilities). 

Third, the team does not view the internal outlooks and attitudes as fixed, but rather as elements that can be honed and changed through training and coaching. 

Fourth, the team does not advocate for replacing the traditional view of engagement with the self-engagement one. It advocates for taking a holistic approach that addresses both traditional and self-engagement drivers. 

The bathwater

There are a few critical gaps in the way the study was conducted that, on aggregate, reduce its overall level of rigor below the threshold that will automatically receive my stamp of approval.

First, there are places where the distinction between traditional drivers and self-engagement drivers get murky. For example, “I trust my immediate supervisor” is considered a traditional driver that’s purely a factor of the supervisor’s behavior, ignoring the way the employee’s overall trust disposition may mediate that perception. 

Second, the decision to look at the correlation between the engagement metric and each one of the drivers in isolation is rather peculiar. A more insightful and rigorous analysis would regress all drivers against the engagement metric, and ideally, perform some factor analysis on drivers ahead of that to address any shared unobserved factors. 

Third, the partial presentation of the results, discussing only 10 out of about 30 drivers, and constructing a narrative in which a specific traditional engagement metric is compared head-to-head against a specific self-engagement mertic, raises concerns around cherry-picking the results in a way that best supports the overall narrative. 


It’s sad that the shortcomings in analysis limit the insights that can be drawn from the study. Yet, nonetheless, the following can be stated with a high degree of certainty: 

  1. Self-engagement drivers have a significant impact on overall engagement outcomes, namely our willingness to exert discretionary effort in doing our work. 
  2. Engagement surveys/reflections that leave out self-engagement drivers will reach partial insights that can only drive sub-optimal actions.
  3. The criticality of self-engagement outlooks and attitudes coupled with their plasticity, creates an opportunity to strategically align learning and development efforts with the overall organizational effort to improve engagement. 
Self-Engagement [Murphy]

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