Shifting Priorities:  From Engagement to Collaboration

today2022.02.01. 49


David C. Forman – President SAGE Learning System, Adjunct Professor at the Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine University

For three decades, engagement has probably been the most important talent measure.   Recruiters may disagree, but there is growing awareness that it is not enough to bring in the best people, but rather bring out the best in people you have (Arena, 2019).  Engagement is an effective early warning system to help ensure employees are committed to improving the organization.

Engagement surveys were a significant improvement over simple employee satisfaction measures because they distinguished “happy employees” from those who would take action to make the organization better.  In addition, many engagement scales were not just items that seemed logical but were derived from rigorous item analysis techniques.  The Gallup Q12 is one such example:  Hundreds of questions were boiled down to 12, and these formed the backbone of a multimillion-dollar engagement consulting business for Gallup.

Because of this rigor, correlational studies were then conducted that showed the impact of high engagement in the workplace.  Highly engaged employees were more productive, less susceptible to turnover, and showed less quality, safety, and absentee issues  (Gallup, 2019).  Engagement deserves its place as a critical and important measure.

But this success deserves a closer look.  Engagement, at its core, is an individual measure.  Individual scores can be summed so that engagement levels by department and company can be seen, but averages of individual scores can be easily misinterpreted. 

As the world of work evolves, it is the team—not the individual or the larger organization–that has become the primary vehicle to drive results.  In fact,  82% of all work done in mid to large organizations is done in small, agile teams (Buckingham and Goodall, 2019).  These teams are increasingly heterogenous, quickly-forming, multi-disciplinary, self-governing, and the critical distinguishing factor is how team members work together.

Google studied the characteristics of its high-performing teams.  Many thought that the key to successful teams was to have as many smart people as possible on the team.  If you had a few Rhodes scholars and mixed in some MacArthur fellows, everything would be fine.  But there are many examples of how very bright and capable people may not play well together, and this was confirmed by Google’s own data.  The performance level of individuals did not matter, and it is much less about who was on the team than how the team operates.  This finding may have surprised corporate executives, but it seems reasonable for those who have been in community productions, played in bands, or contributed to athletic teams.  There is a fluidity and magic to successful teams that goes way beyond the sum of their individual parts. 

“Communities outperform bureaucracies every day of the week”  Gary Hamel

“Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success.”  Henry Ford

A key characteristic of successful teams is “psychological safety” (Edmondson, 2019).  Psychological safety is important to building trust, respect, and honest exchanges among team members.  Two key indicators of psychological safety are conversational turn-taking (so one team member does not dominate) and social sensitivity to others.  Other important variables for excellent team performance are dependability, structure, clarity, meaning, and impact.  Buckingham and Goodall (2019) studied hundreds of teams, and building on prior work, identified eight aspects of high-performing teams.  They identified two groups of four items each that they labeled “the best of me” and the “best of we.”  This wording suggests a balance between individual and group priorities that needs to be achieved for teams to be successful.

New measures are required for new times.  Just as the engagement was a significant improvement over employee satisfaction; collaboration now becomes more meaningful than measures that focus just on the individual.  Engagement continues to be relevant; but it is no longer sufficient, especially when success is dependent on the extent to which we leverage each other’s strengths, work together, collaborate, and continue to learn from our shared experiences. 

Some have called this change the shift from human capital to social capital.  I prefer to think of the image contained in the words of Satchel Paige, the great American baseball player, who pitched in the big leagues at the age of 59.

“Ain’t none of us as smart as all of us.” 

Satchel Paige

Written by: Mihaly Nagy

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