Evolution of Employee Engagement - the Positive Engagement Survey

Companies have been tinkering with ways to increase employee morale, engagement, and productivity for years. In the 1920’s the Hawthorne studies demonstrated that simply showing interest in workers resulted in increased performance - the “Hawthorne effect.”[1] Maslow’s[2] theory in 1954 offered the hierarchy of needs to describe worker motivation, including: physiological, safety, social esteem, and self-actualization. About the same time, Herzberg[3] offered that workers need both “hygiene factors,” e.g., supervision, salary and working conditions, and “motivators” which include advancement, achievement and recognition. From today’s vantage point, we may look at these ideas and say “duh.” Was that really such a unique perspective at the time? Yes. 

Where has this led to recently? Today we see new and intriguing strides in the areas of positive organizational scholarship (POS), positive organizational behavior (POB), and positive psychological capital (PsyCap)[4]. Additionally, from Gallup’s[5] strengths-based approaches, Cooperrider’s[6] Appreciative Inquiry, and Losada & Heaphy’s[7] team performance we see that strength-based approaches enhance company, team, and individual outcomes.

We see organizations rush to implement the Gallup Q12 employee engagement survey. This is done with good reason – Gallup’s study of thousands of employee survey questions and their correlation to highly productive employees is impressive. What though, is the next evolution of employee engagement practices that will lead to even better outcomes and wellbeing? 

I believe we need to look at the process of gauging and influencing engagement – how do we ask questions and what do we do with the results? Currently, an organization may choose to ask the Gallup Q12 questions or a myriad of other employee survey questions looking to find where the “gaps” exist. Perhaps it is in unclear roles and goals, inadequate developmental opportunities, lack of recognition, or not having a best friend at work. So here’s the key question, why are we looking at the “gaps,” rather than what is working? 

Evolution - the next step of employee engagement will be a blend of appreciative inquiry and strengths-based surveys. Appreciative inquiry, a well-accepted change methodology, has much to offer employee engagement. Appreciative inquiry differs from traditional problem-focused approaches by seeking to identify what is working well, affirming our strengths, and through affirmative questions, exploring new possibilities.[8] How does this apply to our employee engagement survey process? First, in the questions we ask. Second, in how we use the results.

First, questions: According to appreciative inquiry, the moment we ask a question, we influence the audience. A favorite response that illustrates this point is, “I didn’t realize I was stressed until you asked me about it!” Today, there have been great advances in using questions to measure employee engagement constructs including: employee thriving[9], trust and connectivity,[10] work related flow,[11] mood and emotions[12] and positivity[13]. Moreover, each of these constructs has been scientifically correlated with improved individual and/or organizational wellbeing and performance. So how do we use these strengths-based questions and resulting answers?

I’ve found one approach to be very effective. Recently, a small community foundation wanted to look at employee engagement. I introduced them to mPloy-e (www.mploy-e.org). mPloy-e is an organization that believes every employee is entitled to a work environment where they can flourish and mPloy-e makes employee engagement surveys accessible and affordable to companies and workgroups of all sizes. Working together, we developed a short employee engagement survey using strengths-based questions from the sources above. However, what was different about the survey was how the questions were asked. If an employee answered a question with a high response (5 on a scale of 1 to 5), the survey would then automatically open a second question asking, “What made that success possible? Please provide a specific example.” By doing this, the survey results became, in essence, a book of internal best practices.

Second, results: They could then leverage those best practices in other parts of the company. For example, one department might be doing very well on “internal communication” and the survey responses show they got to that point by: doing daily standup meetings, visually posting progress toward goals, and following a specific format in their email communications to each other. Once widely known, these practices could then be replicated and built upon in other areas of the company. Using strengths-based questions, discovering what is already working and spreading the best practices throughout the company. Will we look back at this in the near future and say, “duh?”

[1] French, J. R. P. (1953). Experiments in field settings. In L. Festinger, & D. Katz (Eds.), Research methods in the behavioral sciences (pp. 98—135). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
[2] Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper & Row.
[3] Herzberg, F., Mausner, B., & Snyderman, B. (1959). The motivation to work. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
[4] Luthans, F., & Youssef, C. M. (2009). Positive workplaces. In S. J. Lopez, & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (2nd Edition ed., pp. 579-588). New York: Oxford University Press.
[5] Gallup. (2008). Employee Engagement What’s Your Engagement Ratio? Retrieved from www.gallup.com
[6] Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D. and Stavros, J.M. (2008), Appreciative inquiry handbook: For leaders of change (2nd Edition). Brunswick, OH: Crown Custom Publishing, Inc.
[7] Losada, M., & Heaphy, E. (2004). The role of positivity and connectivity in the performance of business teams: A nonlinear dynamics model. American Behavioral Scientist.Special Issue: Contributions to Positive Organizational Scholarship, 47(6), 740-765. doi:10.1177/0002764203260208
[8] Cooperrider, D. L., Lecture, University of Pennsylvania, MAPP, January 2011. 
[9] Spreitzer, G., Sutcliffe, K., Dutton, J., Sonenshein, S. & Grant, A. M. (2005). A socially embedded model of thriving at work. Organization Sciences, 16(5), 537-562.
[10] Carmeli, A. & Spreitzer, G. M. (2009). Trust, connectivity, and thriving: Implications for innovative behaviors at work. Journal of Creative Behavior, 43(3), 169-191.
[11] Bakker, A. B. (2008a). The work-related flow inventory: Construction and initial validation of the WOLF. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 72(3), 400-414. doi:10.1016/j.jvb.2007.11.007
[12] Fisher, C.D. (2000). Mood and emotions while working: missing pieces of job satisfaction? Journal of Organizational Behavior, 21, pp. 185—202.
[13] Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity. New York: Crown Publishers.