Employee engagement invariably leads to higher performance – true or false?

Helen Giles , 02 Jul 2012

Helen Giles

When I train managers from different kinds of organisations in leadership and management, I’m astonished to find out how many companies don’t actively manage performance.

When we do exercises around what makes for engaging leadership behaviours, assessing their own self-awareness and emotional intelligence, or practising feedback skills, most participants work on these very happily indeed. Also, after a little more extensive elaboration around the notion of core competencies, most participants get this and take to the idea of using these for recruitment, performance management and development like ducks to water. Those that don't already set 'balanced scorecard' type measures of success for company performance at least 'get' the idea and generally think it a very good one.

But invariably when we get on to the vexed topic of setting SMART performance objectives for individuals, or breaking down routine aspects of jobs into clearly measurable output and quality standards, a pea souper of a fog descends upon the room. Despite being given concrete examples and an assurance that they can adapt these to be as long or short as they like for the context of their enterprise, they struggle. When asked to experiment by drafting a couple of objectives and standards for somebody they manage, it's like watching a room full of five-year olds labouring to write their first full sentence.

It's at this point, when it dawns on them that a key element of any effective performance management scheme means having to describe in objective terms what the good performance that they have a right to expect actually looks like, so that it can be properly evidenced, pockets of rebellion break out in the room. "We won't have time to do all this management stuff in the way you describe. You don't understand the special circumstances of our type of business/ /charity/hospital or local authority department. The day to day work pressures are too much".

Intellectually, they accept that there's at least a degree of plausibility in the proposition that if you are investing in the expensive piece of kit that is an employee who might be costing you, let's say, £25,000 a year, it's wise to ensure your return on investment by setting a crystal clear specification of what you want them to deliver in terms of speed and quality of outputs and outcomes. But they simply find it devilishly difficult to do in practice.

I believe that it's the ability and discipline of doing this, and properly evidencing that expectations have been achieved, that sets consistently great organisations apart from the patchy or poor performers. Yes, employee engagement is important, but I also believe that rigour in the performance management process lies at the very heart of any organisation that is both highly engaged and high performing. From my exposure to data from not-for-profit organisations, I know that it is perfectly possible to command a very respectable employee engagement measure in a poorly performing organisation where the mission of that organisation is about making a difference to people's lives.

So I'd like to be hearing a little less about employee engagement in HR debates and guidance and more about good old fashioned performance management.

And can anyone point me to any written guide to '1001 ways to draw up objectives without even trying', with easy to crib examples?

Helen Giles (pictured) is HR director at Broadway Homelessness and Support



8 comments on this article

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Neither true nor false!

Peter Quintana 02 Jul 2012

There is no doubt in my mind that an engaged workforce leads to higher performance. It stands to reason that an employee who is not just satisfied with her job, but with her place of work and her employers, talks about them and recommends them to others, and is proud to be an employee, is going to perform beyond somebody who is not all these things. But there is also no doubt that at the heart of any employee engagement programme, there needs to be a robust performance management system that managers and staff understand, and that is fully aligned with the company's objectives. Employee engagement and performance management are not, in my view, 'either/ ors', and therefore it is neither true nor false to say that one leads to the other. Rather, if employee engagement is done properly - and I guess we all know this is not always the case - performance management would be one component.

Views from Engage

Gemma Dentith 03 Jul 2012

Dear Helen, You have highlighted a very interesting topic. Managing performance in value-led environments is a challenge that many charities face. Engaging both employees and a temporary volunteer workforce with the charity’s purpose usually scores highly but, as you say, it becomes more difficult when you are seeking to manage day-to-day performance and drive a commercial mind-set across such purpose-orientated organisations. Your article focuses on engagement as an overall ‘state of satisfaction’ as apposed to a set of unique behaviours that have been identified to drive desired actions. In this scenario we would suggest that engagement needs to be reframed for the organisation’s specific goals/challenges, unearthing the behaviours that are required to achieve them. That said, it would not be typical that a charity adopts the same behaviours as a hungry, high-performing commercial bank (or a customer-focused supermarket either!). We believe the problem here is twofold: 1) performance management at the deepest level should be taken seriously but managers need to be engaged around this process and; 2) for managers to be engaged around driving the performance of their staff, they must firstly understand and see the ROI in them doing so and the benefits to the business. So perhaps charities should look at moving away from engagement as a ‘state of motivation’ if workers are already engaged with the charity’s purpose. Instead they should focus on translating what engagement means into the daily behaviours that performance management is looking at. I believe that this is part and parcel of the problem with the term ‘engagement’. Charities and businesses are not asking the question “engagement with what?” Most charities can tick ‘engagement with their charity’s purpose’, however, managers need to be equipped with the tools and insight they need to drive ‘engagement to perform’. Furthermore, I agree with your last point that “rigour in the performance management process” is important, but this needs to be framed in the right way to enable managers to incorporate it into business as usual when they already do extremely demanding roles.

Expect Performance Before Engagement

Susan Coote 04 Jul 2012

Helen, Your heartfelt post describes a situation we all see far too frequently and one which we must make headway on, particularly in sectors which are comparatively new to the process and skills for managing performance. Gemma’s response highlights the key issues in establishing and managing the link between engagement and performance. Engagement adds little value to the organisation or the individual if it is only about personal satisfaction with the organisation and their work. It only begins to pull it’s weight if the question ‘engagement with what?’ is asked and answered on an organisational and individual level. Being transparent and clear about expectations for performance throughout the management community can very quickly raise awareness and focus minds on what needs doing today, what will be noticed, and how it will be perceived. The community needs to develop a culture of valuing performance before engagement can become a valuable measure.

So few of us

Michael 05 Jul 2012

I agree wholeheartedly with the the sentiments expressed in the article above. It is very frustrating to have to deal with lesser people who do not have the intellectual ability to appreciate the wisdom I am bistowing on them. But maybe some day they will see the light and all come to agree that my way is really the only correct way. Thank you for this excellent and thought-provoking article.

Performance is the key

Anna 05 Jul 2012

This article and all the comments above ring so true in my experience. I am a training manager who on a regular basis also encounters management who fail to appreciate that if they just listened to me all their troubles would be over and they too would be part of a high performing organization. I am offering them performance gold but they just turn up their noses. So very frustrating.

Speaking in tounges

Sharon Gardner 05 Jul 2012

Just a quick note of congratulations to the contributors here for managing to fit so many ill-defined and ill-thoughtout concepts. Let's keep the HR jargon going. We all know it makes us sound really intelligent. Don't want to waste that money spent on CIPD qualifications or those lovely expensive training seminars. Can't think why the rest of the organization switches off.

so true

david mccracken 30 Aug 2013

well said sharon- precisely what I was thinking as I waded through all the gobbility gook and jargon inthis article and comments

rpo providers 08 Oct 2013

It is important to recognize that Employee Engagement goes beyond program management. This is HR capability that cannot be created unless there is the right HR Leadership, which inspires the HR program manager and inculcates the spirit of the initiative.

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