Get rid of your benchmarking comfort blanket
The main reason organisations want external engagement benchmarks is that they act as a comfort blanket. If a company is “only three points off average” or “a couple of notches above the norm”, then things feel warmer and better. This can also lead to complacency.
However, there are several reasons that senior executives should be much tougher with themselves about the merits of external benchmarking in employee engagement:
1. Staring at external benchmarks doesn’t make you better
• My sport has always been rowing (or “crew”). If there’s one thing every great coach tells you, it’s this: “keep your eyes on your own boat – looking across at how other crews are doing will not make you go faster”. Benchmarking your engagement survey is similar. You can stare forever at how your own scores compare to the “norms” but it doesn’t make you any better at engaging your own people. Knowing how you compare to a bunch of other firms on leadership doesn’t make you better at leading people; knowing what your ratings are on communications versus a basket of other organisations doesn’t make you any better at cascading information or creating dialogue.
• Companies need to get focused on how they can improve their own situation and stop obsessing about how they compare to others
2. Many of the norms used are not really comparable
• Lots of norm data is meaningless. Comparing your own engagement data to a national average is so broad it becomes pointless. Benchmarking yourself against an “industry” average may mean you are comparing yourself to other companies who are of a very different scale or complexity. So just how beneficial is the match?
• Firms need to be more ruthless in what is actually seen as a high utility benchmark
3. By definition, external benchmarks are blunt instruments
• Because engagement benchmark databases are built on generic questions, they only allow you to compare against “lowest common denominator” question items, relevant across all types of organisation. What most firms want to know is how they are doing on engagement questions pertinent to them and their current situation or challenges. What they get are very blunt norms based on very uniform questions which, in fact, tell them very little.
• Client organisations need to understand that survey firms are usually building survey norm databases to create the very industry of which they then become the victims – slaves to the benchmarks. It becomes a vicious circle.
4. Many benchmarks are out-of-date
• Many survey firms, to try and make the norm data more relevant and focused on a particular client, will have to stretch back the data for so long in time that the data itself becomes out-of-date. Companies need to get smarter at asking about the credentials of the benchmarks being used. How pertinent are they and how fresh is the data? Are these comparisons even valid?