What companies may learn from politics

Politics is not the focus of this column but it does set the scene for a discussion on the power of measurement and numerical scoring.

As we settle in to the outcomes of this year’s local elections, we have experienced a seismic shift on a number of fronts and there is much anticipation at the future impact of this upon our general election during 2019. We have a business-minded mayor in Johannesburg and far-reaching DA gains across a number of traditional ANC strongholds in the country — clear signals of change.

In a manner of speaking, the South African citizen-engagement score has been measured and their voices have been heard, with fundamental changes in their allegiance. The level of engagement with prior political parties, or lack thereof, has been taken into account and citizens have exerted their sentiment in the form of alternative votes.

Employee engagement

Naturally, business works somewhat differently and disillusioned employees do not get to vote existing leadership out, nor transition the business to alternate leadership groups. The thought might be tempting in some quarters but the notion of mass ideology and sentiment doesn’t merge well with the principles of capitalism, and it’s perhaps best left to shareholders and market forces to exert their influence upon the rise and fall of executive teams and leadership, such as we are witnessing in the latest US banking scandal at Wells Fargo.

Employees do yield another form of influence in their voting, and this is with their feet. If the engagement scores are unsatisfactory or ignored, and employee hearts and minds are not retained, they will simply move along and find organisations that better fulfil their needs, exhibit a deeper sense of purpose or offer greater growth and career development prospects.

Measure what you manage

There are a multitude of measurement instruments available and these are deployed with a wide range of efficacy. The informal suggestion box and basic staff-satisfaction surveys are one end of the spectrum, whereas sophisticated measures that assess levels of alignment between individual and organisational values offer a depth of analysis into underlying psychological measurements and key aspects of organisational design. The frequency of measurement will differ vastly across organisations, as will the basis of interpretation and feedback into the business. While there is some truth in the principle that you can’t manage what you can’t measure, there is also a caveat that comes with the subjectivity, emotion and limitations of a numerical measure on a social being.

Manage what you measure

In many organisations, measurement in isolation is not the problem; more often than not, fatigue creeps in primarily because such measurement often fails to yield results. Rumblings are often evident around town-hall gatherings, in which management will feed back survey findings to the organisation or teams and reflect upon both the good and the bad.

The first in such a series of meetings is often met with enthusiasm but this often wanes when subsequent surveys yield the same findings or results, with little evidence of any change implementation or progress against recorded issues, often detracting from the very point of such survey efforts. Employees participating in engagement surveys will take pleasure in having their voices heard initially, but this will rapidly dissipate into disillusionment when actions aren’t taken and themes are recurrent.

Positive correlation

There is sufficient evidence in employee-engagement survey work and research to support the notion that higher levels of engagement correlate positively to a range of business outcomes, including performance gains, higher staff morale, increased levels of innovation and improved presenteeism, to name a few. It is clearly worthwhile measuring. It is futile, however, if employees use this instrument to appeal for change, feed back to management and develop expectations in the process which remain unmet.

In addition to one-directional measurement, management should use the tool effectively to generate new ideas, create feedback mechanisms and drive organisational change and development in the process. This makes measurement worthwhile for both parties, mitigates survey fatigue and keeps participant interest vested in the cycle of measurement.

Political engagement offers a level of immediacy of action, as we recently experienced in our local elections. Perhaps we in the private sector may learn from this and, although we can’t shift leadership changes as dramatically, we should work harder at bringing an urgency to the corrective actions required in addressing progressive organisational change — not intended as populist, but where practical and appropriate.

This article was originally featured on marklives.com