The Employee Engagement Network

How do we know when we are getting employee motivation right?

I often wonder how we ever know if we are getting employee motivation right?


Really - how can we tell?

Recently Paul Hebert at IncentIntel wrote about something similar to this (see here). The title of his article was "You don't need to measure employee engagement."  And measurement for measurement sake is futile...however, how do you know if what you are doing is working?  You need to be able to gauge that - and not just in a "Joe says he likes the new incentive plan" type of way.   

I don't fully believe that the typical measures we use can really tell us  (of course, I could be wrong).  So here is the BIG QUESTION: How do we know that the programs, culture and processes we've cobbled together are maximized and fully driving long-term employee motivation?


Of course we can look at surveys that gauge employee satisfaction, employee engagement or other "motivational" measures.  I like these.  I use them all the time.  They can give a snapshot of where a company is on the motivational landscape.  Over time they can indicate if you are doing well or maybe doing not so well.

But surveys are limited in the information that they can actually provide us.  It is a problem with correlation and causation - and correlation does not imply the later (which is too often overlooked).  Surveys are good, but:

  • They provide just a snapshot of a point in time that can be influenced by other factors (weather, news, economics, etc...).
  • Recent events tend to outweigh older events on their stated importance.
  • They are very dependent upon the way a question is worded (i.e., "how do you like the new cost saving measures we put in?" versus "how do you like the new job saving measures we put in?"
  • They do not show causation - what is really driving the motivation that we see?


We often look at corporate or divisional performance as a measure of motivation - particularly when it comes to measuring sales motivation.  How did sales performance improve or not improve after we implemented these programs or incentives.  Did sales go up and by how much?  This works really well if we have a control group to measure performance gains/losses against.  However, I find that control groups rarely exist in the non-academic or medical testing world.  Too often we rely on one or two measures looked at for a short time and to determine success. While that can be a good indication of a particular programs effectiveness, I don't think it really measures overall employee motivation.

  • Performance is typically impacted by a number of factors that we usually don't account for (i.e., we don't have a control group to compare to)
  • Performance is only measured for a short, specific period but doesn't reflect long term elements
  • Performance only measures one aspect which does not reflect a number of elements of employee motivation


Focus groups and personal interviews are another way of trying to gauge employee motivation.  These are effective in many of the same ways that surveys are, but they can get a deeper look at what is driving or inhibiting motivation.  These measures can provide an organization with a lot of very valuable qualitative information that explores a reasons behind answers and get at a level of understanding that one cannot really do with surveys or performance tracking.  However, focus groups and interviews are inherently selective - we usually can't interview everyone.  It can be tricky to extrapolate findings from this type of work out to the entire work force.  While focus groups and interviews provide some deep level information on employee motivation they also:

  • Have a limited number of people that provide input
  • Are time consuming and costly to implement
  • Like surveys, usually offer a snapshot in time that can be influenced by other factors


Sometimes I think gauging employee motivation is like porn, "I know it when I see it." There is a certain vibe that comes from places where employees are engaged and motivated.  While it is hard to describe exactly what it is, one can sense it when they walk into an organization that has it.   I've found that it is also different at different companies - that company A might have it because people are gathered in teams brainstorming ideas in the hallway, while company B has it because they are diligently working away in their cubes.   But again, there is trouble in this approach.   It is dependent on individual interpretations.  It is easily biased based on what I or somebody else sees and hears (which from an executives point of view can be very limited or skewed).  There is no good way of quantifying this.  While we like to think we can tell things, we often can't:

  • Not measurable or reliable
  • Dependent upon the individual - one person might think a company has it while another doesn't
  • Prone to biases that people have (I have a good history with company A, therefore I might be biased to see it in a better light)
  • Doesn't show causation again - are the programs and procedures causing the engaged vibe?


We get back to that BIG QUESTION - how do we know?  I'm not sure we can truly ever know.

Does that mean we should give up?

Hell no!

What it means is that we should try even harder and do this systematically.  I believe that when we measure these types of things we not only help identify if we are getting motivation right, we are improving employee motivation.  We show that we are concerned about it and that typically means something to employees (increases the drive to Bond and the drive to Defend - see 4-Drive Model).

I actually believe that companies that use an on-going, systematic combination of all four measures from above do it best.  Those are the companies that are looking at how their individuals programs work but also at the larger picture.  They don't rely on just one measure or look at the short-term impact that these programs have.  Instead these companies:

  • Put in place regular on-going surveys that measure employee engagement attitudes - this provides not just a snapshot, but can give you a trend.  The more regular these surveys are (without becoming a burden) the better.   There are many traditional ways of doing this but also many newer ways using technology that can improve this process.  Recently Hinda Incentives wrote about Rypple and how their system helps management gain valuable on-going employee feedback.
  • Measure performance on both a programatic and overall basis.  This means that you definitely want to measure how well a particular short-term incentive worked for increasing sales but you also want to make sure that you take a longer look at it as well (do sales stay higher or drop off after the incentive ends?).  Specific performance measures should be looked at on an ongoing basis to help gauge how a company is tracking on their motivation - not just sales but efficiency, innovation, ROI.  Create a specific dashboard of measures that you look at to help see the motivational trends - and if you can create a control group (even for a short-term program) - DO IT!
  • Focus groups and surveys are key to understanding the "why" behind the "what".  These need to be instituted on a regular basis.  If you can conduct these three times a year that is great.   If not, do it twice or at least once.  Ask some of the same questions each time to see what changes, but also look at different aspects.  Try to peel away the layers and look at what is underneath their answers.  I find that conducting focus groups / interviews after you get the results from the survey is a great way to expand on that information.
  • Check your gut feel on a regular basis. If you are a manager, get out and walk around with the specific intention of seeing how the employee motivation "vibe" feels.   Ask questions.  Observe.   While not scientific, this is often the best measure.  You'll know it when you see it.

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Tags: employee, leadership, management-hr, measurement, motivation, surveys


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