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Should You Benchmark Engagement Scores?

We're often asked whether we benchmark engagement scores, and while it's tempting to follow the crowd, we don't believe it's good for your business. Read why.

One of the first questions that are still asked when employee survey results are published is, “How did we benchmark?”

What do we mean by benchmarking engagement?

Benchmarking employee engagement is where you compare your results to other companies, perhaps in your geography or industry.

So, we’re talking about external benchmarking here.

You can also benchmark engagement internally - how different functions, geographies or demographics compare on engagement scores or drivers.

But we need to ask now, in these more enlightened times is: ‘Should you benchmark engagement scores or not?’.

Arguments FOR externally benchmarking engagement survey results

…hang on, I’m thinking


Ok, here’s the best I can do for you: At best, benchmarking will give your leadership a kick up the backside, but if your engagement scores are terrible and they weren’t expecting it, then your leadership is probably the problem anyway and might not respond well.

Arguments against benchmarking engagement survey results

At its worst, benchmarking engagement survey results is a vanity exercise, an opportunity to pat yourselves on the back or beat each other up, rather than doing anything to improve the business.

At best, it might be that kick up the back side, but…

Benchmarking engagement is pointless when it comes to employee engagement, benchmarking is an abstraction, a meaningless comparison that says nothing about your ability to execute your business strategy effectively, now and in the future.

The only thing that matters is whether your employee experience is improving, ultimately to improve your organisation’s ability to execute its strategic vision and mission.

We don’t do wellbeing, inclusion or collaboration because they’re nice. We do them because they contribute to sustainable performance (and sometimes just because it’s the right thing to do).

Logically, therefore, if your People Strategy represents your ability to deliver upon your Business Strategy and if it doesn’t then, perhaps you need a new one - Download here, then your employee feedback strategy should be aligned – and benchmarked - entirely to your People Strategy.

Benchmarking engagement takes the focus off what really matters

It’s a distraction from the real business of improving YOUR business.

While you’re focused on where you compare against your competitors, you’re not focused on what’s going well and what’s not going well inside your own business.

This is something that GethinNadin, Employee Wellbeing Director at Benefex talked about in our recent webinar – the problem with your employee survey.

Gethin commented that: "You are a unique business with your own benefits and you want to be a great place to work for different reasons. You can just get lost in benchmarking!"

The Problem With Your Employee Survey - Why you shouldn''t benchmark engagement

It''s also rather joyless

OK, the idea of introducing ''joy'' into the picture might seem weird, especially for a leadership team that''s involved in serious stuff like improving performance against benchmarks.

But there is a point here.

For anyone that''s involved in improving the employee experience, which should at the very least be all managers, psychology and specifically Self-Determination Theory tells us it''s less likely to be a rewarding experience that sustains effort than seeing the real impact of an improved employee experience on people: Through better relationships, a greater connection with the purpose of the organisation, feelings of competence and autonomy!

Comparison is the thief of joy - quote from Theodore Roosevelt 


What does matter?

If your scores are generally low, the question must be “what do we need to focus on that will make the biggest difference to our people, and to our business?” and that’s not necessarily the scores that you compare least favourably for (or even score lowest in).

If your scores are generally high, the question should be the same.

This issue is also closely related to the problem of when the measure becomes the goal, which is the subject of another blog post.

Benchmarking encourages ‘regression towards mediocrity’

Business is competitive. I do get that. So what happens when you’re all comparing yourselves to each other? Yes, you end up more vanilla than when you started. If you want to be an exceptional company, you have to think like an exceptional company.

Who cares what others are doing?

Let them care about what you’re doing!

Find your own edge

Elite athletes are constantly looking for an edge.

Lionel Messi doesn’t concern himself with being more like Ronaldo. Naomi Osaka isn’t trying to be Serena Williams.

The elite mindset is based on continuous self-improvement and differentiation. If you play the benchmarking game to its logical conclusion, it creates companies that are more and more similar – an example of regression towards the mean (or as Sir Francis Galton originally, and perhaps fittingly termed it, regression towards mediocrity).

Benchmarking data itself is questionable

No matter which employee engagement survey platform you use or how big they are, you are still dealing with a sub-section of your ideal comparative population, if there''s really such a thing if you''re trying to find an edge.

That’s because each provider uses their own data, and you don’t ultimately know if their database represents the companies that you would want to benchmark against, even if it wasn’t already pointless enough.

If there was a dataset across all providers, you would have to take into account that they all use slightly different engagement models and questions, because there’s no universally accepted ‘construct’ of employee engagement.

What about internal benchmarking then?

If you’ve chosen employee survey measures that are relevant to the execution of your business strategy, then it makes good sense to compare how different groups are doing in your organisation for different drivers of performance.

But of course, we still advise a degree of caution.

What Finance needs to look like is different from what Sales does, and so on.

We’ve already said that there’s no universally accepted model of employee engagement, but whatever you use it’s a multi-dimensional, motivational concept and so it’s a little more nuanced than higher = better.

So, in short, our point of view is that externally benchmarking employee engagement survey results is a bad idea

The most innovative and successful companies don’t fit the mould; they break it.

Benchmarking employee survey data is a meaningless abstraction, a distraction from the things that will improve your people experience and your performance, and it’s a fallacious idea that will ultimately lead to mediocrity.

The only thing that you need to benchmark against is your own ability to deliver your strategic vision and mission, by delivering a great experience for your people. Or, in other words, your People Strategy.

Talk to us about how your Annual Engagement Survey and other types of Employee Feedback could be driving more value for your business.

Check out our guide to running employee surveys


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