Don’t Teach the Test… And Other Engagement Lessons

By Matt Varava , Engagement Practice Head

I take part in a lot of discussions about results.

During the day, I speak with business leaders about their employee engagement initiatives. Survey methodology and results are often front and center in those conversations. Many evenings, as a member of my town’s board of education, I debate the role and impact of standardized tests in our schools and specifically our districts results. And while the issues, objectives, and politics of corporations and public education may differ, I’ve observed that in both worlds smart, well-intentioned people make the same mistake: They place too much emphasis on the test and lose sight of the prize.


What’s the result of that misplaced focus? In schools, teachers work hard to complete ambitious curricula shaped by mandated tests, but Johnny still can’t read. In organizations, frustrated business leaders invest time and energy, see employee engagement numbers increase, but find that their business isn’t better off.


Sadly, the budget battles and political debates about public education aren’t likely to be resolved soon. But your organization can heed the lessons that follow to get more out of your employee engagement initiatives and achieve the business results you want.


#1 Don’t teach to the test.


Picture “test time” in schools: Letters are sent home asking parents to serve good breakfasts and manage test anxiety while teachers set aside “non-test” subjects to concentrate on content reviews and practice questions. Many organizations behave in a similar fashion to ramp up for the annual engagement survey. Managers are asked about the status of their action plans. Organization-wide responses to last year’s findings (e.g., career development tools or rewards programs) are finally rolled out. Leaders increase their communications and visibility. Workplace surveys may be delayed if market conditions cast a dark shadow on the organization. Unfortunately, in both scenarios, the scores achieved aren’t necessarily an accurate representation of what’s going on. And in the workplace this approach can turn your engagement efforts into just another administrative task with no value-add.


Your homework: Stop gaming the system. Re-educate your senior leaders about the role that survey findings should play in shaping decisions, and focus on actions that increase engagement for the long term. Conduct pulse surveys throughout the year — because any diagnostic captures just one data set and one specific moment in time.


#2 Ask the right questions (or be sure you have the right test!).


The “teaching to the test” issue is often compounded when organizations or educational institutions are using the wrong test. Many employee engagement surveys are carry-overs from employee satisfaction tools. As a result, they measure what your workforce is getting from their job and your workplace. But satisfaction is not enough to fuel your business. True engagement integrates satisfaction and contribution. It requires alignment with the organization’s mission-critical priorities. It’s more than pride and emotional commitment — it reflects what employees get and give. Quite often, organizations have aspired to increase their employee engagement results but they have been testing and teaching to satisfaction. It’s easy to see why, in situations like this, the business results haven’t materialized.


To make things more complicated, there are situations where there is no right test or set of questions. Individuals are all driven by unique motivators — some of those may be represented on the test, some may not. In our school district, our special-needs students are evaluated using the standardized test even though they all have Individual Education Plans (IEP), different educational strengths and weaknesses, and learn very differently. The tests quite often are useless.


Your homework: Make sure your engagement survey contains items that assess commitment and alignment with organizational goals, and that it explores barriers to high performance. Make this tool balanced and concise so your organization can focus on the actions it generates. Keep in mind that engagement is an individual equation: find ways to develop individual engagement plans.


#3 Take action, but take the right action.


Parents frame report cards, educators hand out gold stars, and business leaders publicize engagement results in annual reports. I have no problem with that. But high scores are not the prize. Scores don’t do anything. They provide insights to help you take the action you need to achieve your goals, whether you’re developing future world leaders or capturing market share from your fiercest competitor. When it comes to employee engagement, many organizations spend so much time and money collecting, analyzing, and communicating data that they have little budget or bandwidth for actually doing something. And it’s the doing that will impact your bottom line.


Your homework: Evaluate your engagement approach to determine where your organization loses momentum. Create sustainable action plans for organization-wide responses, but also make sure that all employees identify actions to align their interests and goals with those of the organization. And remember that beating the benchmark isn’t the prize. The most successful organizations drive engagement every day, not just during the test or in the immediate action-planning process.


Most important: Keep your eye on the prize. Engagement can drive business results. It can help ensure that you build a thriving workplace and an energized, focused workforce. Once you are sure you have the right test, be sure you balance your investments of both time and money equally among the results and the actions.