The beatings will continue until morale improves. Employee Engagement is changing.

Employee Engagement

Your task:

To allow a bunch of analytically focused senior executives to tackle employee engagement issues.

What is engagement?

'Engagement' is an amorphous term: we all know what it means when we hear it, but it's hard for us to specifically define. So, let's defer to the Wikipedia definition:

An "engaged employee" is one who is fully absorbed by and enthusiastic about their work and so takes positive action to further the organisation's reputation and interests.

In a service organisation, a term like 'work' isn't easy to define. When people talk about 'work' they generally don't mean the undertaking of specific or well-defined tasks that might define 'work' in something like a manufacturing environment.

For employees in a service organisation, 'work' it is a complex series of interactions between colleagues, stakeholders, and third parties where we apply our various skills and competencies. The enthusiasm and dedication to which people apply themselves is extremely fluid. It can change day-to-day depending on a wide variety of circumstances - many of which are outside our control. Because of this, our 'work' and particularly our 'engagement' in our work is extremely complex [1] and difficult to define.


The current approach

To understand engagement by doing an engagement survey is fundamentally oversimplifying a complex issue. It is reductionist, inauthentic, and of very little efficacy. To make the situation worse, the outputs of these types of surveys tend to directly appeal to the desire of analytically focused senior executives.

One of the risks of this simplistic approach is that we try and solve problems that don't exist. A common example from survey results is the assertion that senior management are 'very engaged', whilst staff in the lower rungs of the organisation are 'less engaged'.

If we examine this situation in terms of the actual reality then the inaccuracy of this result comes through. The fact is; the senior management team is a small and more homogenous group, and the rest of the organisation is a large and diverse group. It is not that the 'engagement' of the individuals in these different levels - but rather that we are more likely to get statistical differences when comparing results. These differences in 'engagement' may simply be the result of differences in sample sizes.

Another reason this assertion is flawed is that survey questions are generally asked in a way where the respondent can predetermine the answer that the executive management team would like to see. Savvy managers are far more likely to game their answers, and therefore skew the reported result.

To classify these sorts of survey results as a problem that needs to be solved is potentially demoralising and demonstrates a lack of intellectual integrity. If a person touts engagement surveys as being a true reflection of individual and organisational sentiment, then they are most likely either lying to you or lying to themselves.

The engagement survey process shows that it is an inauthentic response to a complex situation. The methodology simply does not fit the situation in which it is being applied.

Put simply: Your 'Engagement Survey' is not fit for purpose.

What can we do?

The obvious answer to this question is to apply a more authentic approach to understanding engagement. One that embraces the fluidity of how humans interact and respond to situations.

Commercially orientated people want to make decisions based on facts. Preferences for stakeholder research tend toward techniques that provide quantitative results (information that can be analysed, aggregated and simplified). Ambiguity, emotion and uncertainty are hard-boiled into cold rational data that makes us comfortable.

However, it seems incongruous that once this quantitative research information has been presented as spreadsheets and graphs we then try to interpret or explain the information by "painting a picture" or letting the information "tell a story".

People are already storytellers. When people explain their experience with your company to others, they will tell stories, not state statistics. We use stories to convey information, meaning and context. People make decisions about you and your company by aggregating stories and anecdotes and then using data to reinforce (not create) their perception.

In surveys, when customers are ranking statements (usually on a Likert scale where rankings go from 1-5 and where 5 is "strongly agree" and 0 is "strongly disagree") they are often thinking of an anecdote that reminds them of how they feel or contextualises that particular statement for them.

An alternative approach to surveys is narrative research. In narrative research we let the respondent recall their anecdote or story without trying to quantify the response or make it fit our pre-determined criteria. With those stories comes context, cause and effect, example and explanation, some reality and some exaggeration. In other words, the whole picture.


Introducing narrative research

This is how we would introduce narrative research into an organisation that wishes to understand engagement and importantly how to increase engagement.

  1. You will already have a way of understanding what your staff think (maybe an engagement survey). We would not encourage you to totally dispose of this process, but rather use narrative research to strengthen your understanding. We would use these existing methods and questions as a basis for gathering narrative from your stakeholders. For example: in a formal survey the statement "I would recommend (this company) to a friend" may be measured with a Likert scale response. In narrative research, we would ask this question, "What experience or reason do you have that prompted your response?"
  2. It may be important to have some objectivity in this narrative gathering process. People will tell stories differently depending on their relationship to the recipient. In this case Cornwall Strategic staff could gather the narratives.
  3. The narratives are transcribed. We then facilitate a half-day workshop with the 'engagement team' [2], in which the narratives are reviewed, categorised and interpreted. This interpretation is effectively an expression of the underlying issues around engagement.
  4. It could be valuable to use the interpretation to create archetypes. These characters embody positive and negative traits of elements of the culture. They allow the associated behaviours to be discussed without the discussion becoming personal. It also allows the conversation to remain focused.


  1. In the workshop we will ask the team to seek patterns in the narrative data. Patterns can be opportunities for innovation, overall themes for improvement, or areas of strength. We would also ask the team to identify opportunities for immediate operational improvement.
  2. In the final part of the workshop we would ask the team members to start to summarise the opportunities in such a way that they are actionable, practical and pragmatic.

The benefits of narrative research:

1.    The team is given a way to use the information they are hearing in solving the problem (unlike surveys, where we have to ask 'What do we do now'?). Valuable insights are retained and included, not disregarded if they don't fit into our predetermined categories.

2.    It demonstrates to the senior team the benefits of involvement in the complexity of the culture (access to granular information, reduction of cognitive bias, putting the decision maker in direct contact with the information).

3.    It broadens the thinking of the team and teaches them a different way of viewing and subsequently responding to staff engagement.

4.    The workshop reinforces the culture that (is most likely) required in a fast-changing business environment. This allows the participants to directly link behavior with response, e.g. what is the difference between the stories currently being told and the stories we want to be told in the business? What stories are we proud of? What stories embarrass us?

[1] Here we use 'complexity' in the genuine sense; see for the definition

[2] This is a good way to use self-selected groups so that the process of understanding the situation helps to improve the situation.