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Bob Nelson, Recognition and Engagement Expert: Engagement Survey Industry an 'Epic Failure'

Dr. Bob Nelson, PhD., author of 16 books on recognition and engagement and arguably one of its earliest proponents, has a bone to pick with the employee engagement survey industry. “Gallup has been surveying employee engagement for over 15 years, and here we are so many years later and there is almost no change in employee engagement over that time. I’d call that a failure of epic scale.”
The problem, says Nelson, is that surveys have little to do with actual strategies to increase engagement or to connect engagement with results. “The problem is that people come in and measure engagement, but that doesn’t affect behaviors. That’s the big disconnect.” Organizations, he says, need a game plan for implementing engagement strategies that help them achieve goals, not necessarily more surveys.
“In the case of engagement, most of the focus is on surveying the topic, while not much is done to actually show companies how to systematically move the needle on those dimensions in which they score low, as evidenced from the fact that the percentage of engaged employees today (about 30%) is roughly the same as it was 15-20 years ago, even though the current year’s spend on employee engagement surveys is about $1.5 billion. Wouldn't that in itself suggest that there has been an epic failure?” 
“A lot of organizations are groping to crack the code,” Nelson says. “They need a roadmap. You need to drive the behaviors that will produce the most meaningful results to the organization and its strategic objectives, and support its core values.”
Recognition a Key Driver of Engagement 
While Nelson says employee recognition is a subset of employee engagement, he believes that recognition is “the key driver of engagement. Both should be focused first and foremost on the achievement of organizational goals. If these concepts can’t help in better achieving organizational goals, they’re primarily a waste of time. This is why it bothers me so much when organizations are primarily doing things from the 1940s and feel they’re doing a great job of recognition, when they’re not even in the game today.” 
Nelson believes that too few organizations understand the importance of engagement, or that they “prefer to measure things that are easier to measure, although less relevant to desired goals, such as sales revenue versus profit, internal competition versus real teamwork, training time versus effective learning, seniority versus high performance, problem hiding versus problem solving, individual expertise versus knowledge sharing, management versus leadership, conformity versus creativity, over-performance based on easy objectives versus employees who set challenging goals, reporting (or hiding) accidents versus safety, bloated budgets versus budget containment and increased efficiencies, lack of complaints versus excellent customer service, and too many recognition and incentive companies selling things instead of solutions – or worse, selling points or gift cards and hoping they aren’t redeemed.”
Despite the lack of companies that he says understand the importance of engagement or how to implement engagement strategies, Nelson takes issue with those who argue engagement is a new field. He says the field got its start at least 15 years ago at Gallup, and that it’s now well established, with many organizations having someone in charge of engagement. That said, he sees significant room for improvement and believes organizations could achieve far more return on their recognition dollars by shifting expenditures away from length-of-service or birthdays and other milestones to rewarding behaviors critical to the organization. 
“This isn’t about pizza parties and ping-pong tables,” he says, “it’s about building engagement and performance into the culture. This demands a lot of accountability. That doesn’t get the headlines.”
Another big waste aside from engagement surveys, Nelson says, is a focus on “old line recognition practices that don’t make a difference.” The key to success, he explains, is to drive the behaviors that you want more of. “We have to take out the haziness. The trouble is that organizations try to do too many things. They conduct employee surveys that come back with multiple recommendations so that in the end nothing gets addressed. The idea is to focus on one key objective or set of behaviors. Let’s start with the top issues and really do a good job of addressing those and getting everyone aligned with the key goals and behaviors.” Nelson also believes that teaching managers “how to recognize people and for what” is largely overlooked by most organizations.
Citing statistics from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), Nelson notes that “81% of companies don’t provide any training to their managers about recognition, although I know from my own doctoral work that the No. 1 reason why managers don’t recognize their employees is because they don’t get it – that is, they don’t understand why it’s so important and why they need to do it, and they don’t know how to do it well.”
Focus on Engagement Scores is Misleading
Nelson believes the focus on engagement scores is wasteful and misleading – or worse. “You can have a high level of engagement, great teamwork and a bunch of people in a team admiring one another, but in the end they might not be delivering the best results. Let’s identify those behaviors and celebrate the people who demonstrate them, and coach those who don’t.”
He says he’s fine with engagement being the bigger umbrella: “I acknowledge a larger variable beyond recognition. That’s why I put ‘engagement’ into the title of my latest book. For me, in the end, it’s about finding out what motivates people.” He admits that the engagement field has emerged – “it has become institutionalized” – and believes there’s conclusive evidence that “affirms the positive correlation between engaged employees and desired business outcomes.” But he says that at the same time a lot of people in human resources are getting tired of hearing about it because “it has that loose fuzzy feel. They can’t get their arms around the topic.” 
Effective recognition strategies, Nelson says, can help organizations attract and retain top talent, increase performance and productivity, drive core values, and improve an organization’s culture and customer experience without increasing the recognition budget – not only by shifting recognition dollars away from legacy service awards programs, but by better managing recognition dollars often spent on ad hoc, unmeasured efforts at the departmental level. Organizations can benefit, he says, by training human resources and other managers to “be more skilled at linking recognition to employee engagement strategies in their organizations and how to help communicate the value proposition of effective recognition to leadership.”
Nelson notes that most companies today “realize the value of strategically being an engaged organization; most likely [they] are surveying their employees on the topic, but typically don’t have a clear roadmap as to how to get to that end state from where they currently are.”
Nelson’s latest book is Recognizing & Engaging Employees for Dummies, and he provides leadership training and consulting on the topics recognition and engagement: “I help companies assess where they currently are and the best plan for moving in the right direction to become an engagement culture.” 
For more information, contact Bob Nelson at or (858) 673-0690. His books can be purchased at a discount at his website
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