Employee Engagement, Job Connection & Signal Detection - A Case Study

In my last entry we talked about employee engagement from the perspective of the individual and what you can do to boost your engagement independent of your company’s efforts. In this longer-than-usual post we’ll look at two client cases and introduce a model that helps explain why it may be easier to connect and engage in some companies than in others.

While working with two client organizations to measure and boost their employees’ levels of job connection and engagement, we noticed an interesting phenomenon. In one company where we expected to find high levels of engagement, we found surprisingly low levels. In the other company we predicted low levels of engagement, but instead observed higher than expected levels. An analysis of the cases led us to what seems to be a reasonable explanation – differences in “signal-to-noise ratio”.

You may already be familiar with this term, which comes directly from the study of signal detection. The original work in this field was done in the 1950’s by scientists studying the difficulty military radar operators had discriminating between actual aircraft and background clutter on their radar screens. The higher the signal-to-noise ratio, the easier the signal (in this case an aircraft) is to detect. The lower the ratio – either due to weak signal, high noise levels, or both – the more difficult it is to detect. Over the years, signal detection theory has expanded and been applied to modeling and predicting human decision making in the midst of uncertainty.

So, how does this relate to employee engagement? Think of all of the factors that create job connection and engagement as the signal, and the things that interfere with these factors as noise. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the two client cases:

Case 1
This client is a global pharmaceutical firm with a historically solid pipeline of brand name drugs and a positive market reputation. The target employees were sales representatives selling patent-protected vaccines to pediatricians. One of these vaccines protected children against a life-threatening disease and was the only one of its kind on the market. If the salesperson did not sell the vaccine to a physician, that physician’s patients would not receive it. With this and other effective products in its arsenal, this sales organization achieved high levels of performance and experienced rapid expansion. Most every day, these salespeople could clearly see how their efforts contributed to something much greater than themselves. Based on these factors – think of them as a strong signal – we expected them to be highly engaged. But our survey results told a different story. The group we measured showed much lower than expected levels of resilience, job connection and satisfaction. So we took a closer look at what could be getting in the way.

After several years of explosive growth in revenue and profits, the group’s performance had sagged due to increased competition, decreased customer access and a weak economy. Further, the company had announced a massive reorganization that shifted responsibility for a large part of the group’s customer base to a different internal sales organization. The reorganization included a significant reduction in staff within our target group, with about half the downsized employees reassigned to other groups and half to be released. Think of these factors as the noise in the system - more about this shortly.

Case 2
This client is a regional telecommunications company. The target employees were sales representatives selling voice and data communications systems and services to businesses. The sales team was coming off a good year but quotas had increased dramatically and the recession was taking its toll. Plus, the new sales plan made it tougher for reps to achieve their prior year’s earnings even at 100% of quota attainment. With this scenario in mind – think of them as a weak signal – we expected low levels of engagement. But again we were surprised. Survey results showed solid levels of resilience and job satisfaction, and job connection levels were much higher than expected. So, we needed to dig more deeply into what was happening within this organization.

Despite the current business climate and results, this company’s customers were extremely satisfied. The company website contained pages of unsolicited testimonials from its customers, touting consistently high levels of service. The sales organization had a great relationship with its installation and support teams which meant that most new installations and upgrades were accomplished with minimal service disruption to customers. In addition, company leadership was committed to sales and management development, with active training, coaching and mentoring programs in place. The company was focused on developing high levels of sales team effectiveness and cohesiveness.

Observations & Conclusions
In the first case, although the “engagement signal” was high, the noise level made it difficult for the sales team to detect. While these reps had enjoyed several years of high levels of connection and job satisfaction, they “lacked the muscle” to effectively navigate the high levels of adversity and change they were facing. And because of a low signal-to-noise ratio, they fell off the engagement wagon.

In the second case, the “engagement signal” was relatively low, but so was the noise level in the system. Despite the tough external environment, the company clearly communicated its commitment to the sales organization, and these reps still had a line of sight to their contributions to the customer. In this case, a high signal-to-noise ratio helped the sales reps more easily maintain their levels of job connection and satisfaction.

To us, a signal detection model nicely frames these results. At least in these two cases, the higher the ratio of signal to noise, the higher the level of employee engagement. How is the signal strength in your organization? What's the noise level and how does it get in the way of employee engagement?

In the next post, we’ll talk about some things you can do to boost job connection and engagement despite a weak signal or high levels of noise in your organization.

All the best,

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