Is it time to replace “magic numbers” with a “magic question” when it comes to alignment and engagement?

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OVER the last twenty-plus years, organizations have been focused on finding a single “magic number” as the ultimate gauge of organizational health.

The two main candidates have been the “employee engagement (EE) score: or an “employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS).”

But faced with systemic downward trends in both of those measures — could it be that we are focusing on the wrong numbers?

There are two key problems with EE and eNPS scores. The first is that both are based on sentiments — how employees feel — rather than on their actual words, actions, or priorities. Secondly, both are aggregates, combining employee attitudes towards positives and problems rather than separating them out so they can be targeted and addressed.

Time for a Magic Question?

To address those problems, I propose something new: a “magic question”.

And that question is:

“What are the top three priorities facing your organization?”

This question is “magic” for a number of reasons.

The answers tell us whether employees, leaders, and managers give official priorities the same level of importance.

The answers identify hidden or “unofficial” priorities — which can either reflect gaps between leaders’ words and actions or highlight chronic or systemic issues that get in the way of aligning employee actions with organizational objectives. These are not things that tend to be asked about in engagement surveys or addressed directly by eNPS scores.

Even with stated or “official” priorities, conscious or subconscious messages may emerge as perceived priorities even if not expressed officially. “Cost cutting” is one that is particularly pervasive. Macroeconomic headwinds (inflation, supply chain, labor market tightness) also may emerge as being more critical than the organization’s stated agenda, and workplace hygiene factors (communication, leadership quality) often surface as urgent for employees even if not on the organization’s official list.

Turning those answers into numerical data can send clear messages to management about disconnects.

When communication leaders and business leaders have differences of opinion, the business leader’s opinion prevails. It’s a game of “rock-scissors-paper” where the power of the business leader trumps the subjective expertise of the communication leader. But bringing numerical data to the table, like saying that the business leaders’ top three priorities don’t even make the employees’ top-ten list, adds some “rock” to the opinion of the communicator that a business leader will be harder pressed to ignore.

The strongest quotes provided can be useful in confronting the assumptions held by leaders about key issues. Quotes like “everything is treated as a crisis here”, “overwhelm — too many projects and priorities”, or “attrition in critical service areas and locations” can focus attention in ways that more diplomatically worded interpretations and answers can’t. They illustrate the real word of mouth, which, if left unchecked, can quickly dominate the organization’s agenda.

Even if the answers are collected from a subset of employees, the answers reflect real comments which have likely been shared informally inside and outside the company. And, once quantified, answers to the “magic question” can form the basis for turning internal communication from a cost center to an ROI engine by allowing the financial impact of comms interventions to be tracked, correlated and valued appropriately.

The “magic question” — by creating space for open, unaided feedback that can be easily categorized, scored and ranked — can provide actionable and targeted insights. In doing so, it provides an opportunity to enable communication leaders to deliver real, measurable and monetizable impact.

“The Magic Question” forms the basis for my Measurement Masterclass:

This article appeared previously in Strategic Magazine.

Mike Klein

Mike Klein is Principal of Changing The Terms, a consultancy focused on internal, change and social communication. Mike has worked with organizations in the US and Europe for more than 20 years on pressing strategic communication challenges, and is a prolific writer and commentator on communication strategy topics. Mike is also the Founder of #WeLeadComms, an initiative to drive open recognition and in the communication profession. He holds an MBA from London Business School, and is a former US political consultant.




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