How do you know if your employees are engaged?

The only surefire way to really measure an individual’s “engagement” is to watch that person in action.

One of the big buzzwords in corporate communication is “engagement.”

Everybody is talking about it. Everybody has been talking about it, for a couple of years now. And I can see why. Long-suffering, underappreciated internal communicators are seduced by the idea that engagement is something you can actually measure and tie to communications.

If you survey your employees, the thinking goes, and find out their engagement scores are low, you can then do communication-type stuff to push those numbers up, right? Well … no. There are two problems with that line of thinking.

First, there’s the dirty little secret that communication consultants don’t like to admit when they speak at conferences on the topic: Namely, that true engagement has little to do with corporate communication. True engagement is driven by front-line supervisors and managers.

You know the old saying: People don’t quit companies, they quit bosses. You can work in a hellhole of an organization that never communicates with its employees … and if you have a terrific boss, you’ll stay there for life.

On the flip side, you can work for an enlightened company that is wonderful at communicating to the work force, and if your boss is a horse’s ass you’ll constantly be circulating your resume.

True engagement starts at the top with leaders who not only value employees, but who are willing to hold managers accountable for how they treat and communicate with their employees. That has little to do with corporate communication—no matter how strategic and well done it may be.

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The second problem with engagement is trying to measure it. The companies that do it right do intensive surveys. If you manage five or more people, your employees are surveyed once a year, to determine how “engaged” they are.

But that isn’t always a foolproof method, is it? I once did some focus groups for a large company that did this kind of engagement survey every year. In the group, I asked the participants about it.

“Oh, yeah,” said one woman. “We call that the ‘write five to survive’ survey.”

“What do you mean by that?” I asked, in my best focus-group-moderator voice.

“It means if you just give the manager all fives across the board, they’ll leave you alone,” she told me. “If you give him lower ratings, they’re going to start messing with you.”

That “five to survive” mentality leads to the third problem with engagement: How do you really tell if an employee is engaged? If a boss is a pushover and lets an employee come to work late, leave early and read Sports Illustrated instead of working, the employee will give the boss high marks on the annual survey. But is that employee engaged in his work?

Of course not … he just doesn’t want a new boss.

Likewise, what if you have a boss who can be tough on employees—but who does manage to get the most out of them? Because of her difficult personality, she might get low marks from employees on the annual survey … despite the fact her unit is the most productive in the entire organization.

I think the only surefire way to really measure an individual’s “engagement” is to watch that person in action. And I had that experience the other day.

I was sitting in my favorite deli, drinking coffee and waiting for a friend to show up for a breakfast meeting.

There was only one waiter, and the place was jammed. People just kept filing in. The waiter was crushed. He was taking phone orders, bussing tables, screaming at the cook and trying to get people their food.

Just at the height of the insanity, four corporate women in suits walked in. One of them said to the waiter (a little rudely in my opinion): “We need 24 ‘everything’ bagels with assorted cream cheese to go.”

Now, at this point, the waiter had a decision to make. The order—even though it was fairly large—was not going to make or break the restaurant. There was plenty of business—a lot more than normal, actually—in there already that morning.

Taking the order was going to make this guy’s already miserable morning a total living hell.

He could have told them it was going to be at least 30 minutes. He could have told them to come back. He could have, subtly, let them know it was going to be a while before he could get that order.

That’s what I would have done.

But he didn’t. He smiled and joked and told them it would be right up, if they’d care to take a seat at the counter for just a couple of minutes. Then he somehow made it happen.

This guy wasn’t the owner. He wasn’t getting a piece of the profits on that bagel order. He was a grunt. A foot soldier on an hourly wage. And since it was a takeout order, he wouldn’t even make a tip on it.

But for the good of the company, he made it happen. He treated the customers as if they were the only people in the place.

That is an engaged employee. But you wouldn’t be able to tell that just by doing a survey.

Steve Crescenzo is a popular speaker, seminar leader and consultant. He blogs at E-mail him at, and follow him on Twitter at @crescenzo.

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