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What Employee Engagement Means to Us

Key takeaways from Gallup’s annual “State of the American Workplace” study.
Gallup employee engagement findings
photo by flickr user ilaria

In case you missed the summaries on FastCompany.com and the HBR Blog Network, we’re here to tell you: Gallup’s 2013 “State of the American Workplace” study is out. “This latest report,” the pollster says on its website, “provides insights into what leaders can do to improve employee engagement and performance in their companies.”

Ah, “engagement” — that sellable, catchall term! We sense your skepticism, but it turns out the Gallup report does contain a free, useful tool for measuring the (cough) engagement of your own staff.

By measuring engagement, we mean gauging not only how happy your employees are on the job, but also whether their happiness manifests itself in higher-than-usual performance. Or, as Gallup’s explains it, finding employees who are deeply committed to the success of their organization and emotionally connected to its mission and goals and routinely willing to put forth discretionary effort.

Gallup’s report is based on the results of its annual 12-point survey, in which respondents answer “true” or “false” to a dozen statements. “The survey has been administered to more than 25 million employees in 189 different countries and 69 languages,” Gallup says. “The following items are the ones that emerged from Gallup’s pioneering research as the best predictors of employee and workgroup performance.”

  • I know what is expected of me at work.
  • I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
  • At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
  • In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
  • My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
  • There is someone at work who encourages my development.
  • At work, my opinions seem to count.
  • The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
  • My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.
  • I have a best friend at work.
  • In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.
  • This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

It’s easy to see how administering these queries can give managers get a sense of staff engagement. Of course, the bigger goal is improving your organization’s performance along all of these lines.

To that end, we recommend Terry Waghorn’s 2009 interview in Forbes with Douglas Conant, who at the time was CEO of the Campbell Soup Company. Conant famously used Gallup’s techniques to boost engagement, spurring a turnaround.

“We have developed a continuous loop for closing the engagement gap. We survey all our 580 work groups at the same time every year. Managers then review the results with their managers. Finally, every manager meets with all their direct reports to update their progress on clearly articulated goals. We also evaluate our leaders, and the No. 1 criterion they’re measured on is their ability to inspire trust in those around them.

“The other thing we do is celebrate at a high level when people do things well. Learning to celebrate success is a key component of learning how to win in the market. On a personal level, I send out about 20 thank-you notes a day to staffers, on all levels. And every six weeks I have lunch with a group of a dozen or so employees, to get their perspective on the business, to address problems and to get feedback.”

Campbell isn’t the only organization at which employee engagement has improved through ritualized recognition. As CJ Prince notes on ChiefExecutive.net, FedEx Freight “has numerous, high-profile recognition programs designed to single out employees and make them feel a sense of ownership, including the ‘Five Star’ award to recognize enhanced service and profitability. There are also those prizes that demonstrate teamwork: the ‘Bravo Zulu,’ an on-the-spot achievement award of ‘quick cash’ bonuses, theater tickets and/or dinner gift certificates, and the annual ‘Purple Promise’ award dinner recognizes employees going above and beyond in the field to deliver superior customer service. Divisional CEOs are expected to attend awards ceremonies.”

This is just one of five examples of organizational recognition that Prince provides. “There is no one-size-fits-all plan for recognition, but there are some best practices, including adopting a formal program that focuses on specific behaviors or outcomes, ideally tied back to the company’s core values, which uses peer-to-peer recognition rather than a top-down-only approach.”



Gallup’s Q12 survey is one of many employee engagement questionnaires out there. Another that we like comes from SurveyMonkey and the Society for Human Resource Management Foundation. If you’re still skeptical about the concept of engagement, you’ll love Liz Ryan’s blog post “The Employee Engagement Racket” for BloombergBusinessweek. She writes: “Every decade or so, a bright new theory about managing people gets HR chiefs all excited. In the 1980s, it was the 360 Evaluation. In the ’90s, we had automated applicant tracking systems and comprehensive performance-management systems. These days, employee engagement is hot. What is employee engagement? It’s a made-up construct that seeks to measure how well our employees like us.”

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