A tale of two beverages

Coffee cup

Coffee cup (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

I’ve written before on this blog about the false proxy trap.  The false proxy trap occurs when you can’t directly measure what you need, for example productivity, so you invent a proxy, something that’s easier to measure (for example, employee engagement) that serves as an alternative measure – a proxy.  The problem, as Seth Godin points out, is that “…When we fall in love with a proxy, we spend our time improving the proxy instead of focusing on our original (more important) goal instead”.  It strikes me that HR professionals do this all the time, and that employee engagement and employee satisfaction are, respectively, half-decent and fairly useless proxies for productivity and commitment.  Very few organisations understand the connection in their organisation between these measures and the actual results for productivity and turnover – even fewer understand this for different roles in their organisation.  Yet we seem willing to accept that they are important things to pursue for all roles, in all circumstances, and in all organisations.

If we accept that there is a connection between engagement and these results in general, but don’t verify the connection within our organisation, then we can easily fall into the False Proxy Trap.  The result is that we focus on improving engagement scores in ways that don’t drive business results.  That can mean a lot of mis-directed time, money, and focus.

According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report, 2 out of every 5 employees don’t actually know what is unique about their employer and what their employer stands for – and this is even more pronounced amongst employees who are customer facing.  It’s not always possible to “engage” your workforce, but surely it is possible to at least communicate your strategy?  That, indeed, is a pre-requisite for engagement.  If employees don’t understand the purpose of their work, you’re never going to get engagement.  A good sanity check is to see whether your employees actually know what your company does, and how their role contributes to that.

Recently I was sent an advertisement from a publisher of HR content (below).  While I’m sure the Nespresso  Zenius machines are great, and that your employees would be thrilled to have one, it had me thinking about the situations in which it would actually “build employee engagement” as the advertisement claimed.   Satisfied?  Perhaps.  Engaged? Seems a bit of a stretch.  Seems like a false proxy trap to me.


Compare and contrast to a Bordeaux winemaker, interviewed in the film Red Obsession: “The wine is like a message which you send over the wall.  I think it’s better than those little tweets.  It will end on a table, let’s say in Seattle.  And you can imagine, a couple is meeting for one evening.  A guy is dating a charming girl for the first time.  And they have that.  And from the quality of that bottle may depend the success of their first meeting – you know?  And if I spoil their evening, what a drama – I am responsible.  Our wines should be as good as possible.  We need to please people, and not to impress them.  To please them.”

Same winemaker did admit to consuming large quantities of wine each lunchtime, but that, to me, is someone who is engaged in his work.  Understanding the connection between the work you do and the impact of it on the ultimate consumer.  Feeling an obligation to do the best job you can for them as a result.   If only everyone in every workforce could be that engaged!

From a workforce analytics perspective, it’s critical to define what you mean by concepts like employee engagement (hint: it’s not employee satisfaction), and to understand exactly what the connection is to your business results.  Don’t fall into the False Proxy Trap, and be careful of taking generic advice when it comes to people suggesting strategies to “engage” your workforce.  By all means buy your employees a coffee machine, they’ll love it – just don’t expect it to drive business results because an advertiser said so.


The False Proxy Trap

Back in November, Seth Godin wrote:

“Sometimes, we can’t measure what we need, so we invent a proxy, something that’s much easier to measure and stands in as an approximation.”

We do this all the time in HR out of necessity – we measure employee satisfaction because there’s a connection between satisfaction and productivity, for example; and it’s difficult in many (but not all) roles to measure productivity directly.  Godin goes on to explain how this can become a problem when we focus on the proxy (in this example, employee satisfaction) and forget the goal (in this example, employee productivity):

“…When we fall in love with a proxy, we spend our time improving the proxy instead of focusing on our original (more important) goal instead”

I believe we often fall into this trap too – being obsessed with employee satisfaction metrics as if they are an end in themselves, forgetting that the point is to increase employee productivity – and that:

  1. There are many other paths to boosting employee productivity; and
  2. Not all of the ways to increase employee satisfaction will also increase employee productivity.

What are some other examples of the “false proxy trap” in HR?

(This post originally appeared at strategicworkforceplanning.blogspot.com, the other place I blog at from time to time)