A shift from engagement to expression and belonging
In the first installment of Method’s series on Designing for Dignity, we discussed the importance of creating and maintaining work environments where employees feel dignified. In this installment, we define how dignity should be measured and a framework for measuring it.
In Japanese, the term ikigai translates to “reason for being” and is used to describe the intersection of work, purpose, and self. To some, this intersection may seem foreign. This is not because work, purpose, and self are mutually exclusive, but rather because purpose and connectedness are rarely organizational KPIs.
Fostering ikigai at work means fostering dignity. It means intentionally aligning employees’ sense of purpose to their organization’s broader mission, and tracking the right metrics along the way. So far, the closest companies have come to “right” is by measuring employee engagement, a poor proxy. Employee engagement is measured as a single moment in time, typically focused on sentiment, productivity, and retention. The data is captured in the form of annual surveys in which employees self-report how unhappy they are, with little hope that leadership will make any meaningful change. And it’s often skewed — only 21% of employees say they feel comfortable responding truthfully to employee engagement surveys.
These metrics are static, but employee experience is not – it is a fragile state of being that risks being knocked out of balance by one micro-aggression or one bad manager. Global events and human rights movements will also affect an employee’s experience if they view their companies’ allyship with a cause as performative or superficial, as was the case after the murder of George Floyd.
“[In 2020] we saw in our society that we don’t pay attention to those that are the most vulnerable,” says design and experience executive Elizabeth Srail. “And when you’re repeatedly vulnerable, your dignity starts to strip away.” Poor responses to moments of crises, when taken together with lack of representation, pay inequity, or other injustices, compromise employees’ psychological safety and strip away the sense of dignity built up over years.
So if designing for dignity over engagement is the goal, where do you begin?
Step One: Observe
Before asking employees if they feel engaged or dignified this year, examine the data. There are many other indicators of dignity to examine first. Take an honest look at the diversity of your workforce and the diversity of your board and leadership teams. Does what you see internally match your outward equity and social justice messaging? Are there massive gaps between C-level salaries and employee salaries? Are your employees being paid fairly and equally? Did you make pandemic-related layoffs, and if so, how did you break the news? With kindness and bravery or via company-wide zoom meetings without severance pay? Regardless of the answer, your employees were watching.
Step Two: Ask
Organizations tend to only invest in and measure what is quantifiable — so let’s quantify it.
Researchers at Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies measure dignity by asking survey respondents to respond to a series of statements like “Everyone in my country is free to participate in cultural activities” or “Liberty is guaranteed for everyone in my country.” Transform these questions to make sense for your organization, and regularly survey your employees with them.
In an employer context, dignity includes expression, which takes into account measures historically associated with employee engagement, as well as measures of one’s level of inspiration and sense of purpose; belonging, a measure of psychological safety, whether or not a person feels respected by their employer and whether their work environment is inclusive; and satisfaction, measuring an employee’s contentedness with their job. You can then begin to assess the dignity of your workforce with this formula:
Employee Dignity = Expression – Dissatisfaction (Belonging-Satisfaction)
Step 3: Act
Once you have established a baseline, it’s time to take action. As strategy and culture expert Danielle Dory likes to say, “it’s time for your cultural change moment.” Because there is no single blueprint for how an organization might begin to operationalize its purpose, step 3 is all about taking what you’ve learned from steps 1 and 2 and intentionally designing the future of your organization in collaboration with your employees. Ask yourself, what behaviors do your employees need to see being modeled in order to believe in you and your mission?
With these steps to guide you, you will be well on your way to designing, measuring, and maintaining a culture of dignity. As Tim Harford describes in Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, “targets tend to be simple, while the world is complicated. We assume by measuring one thing we’re measuring everything. We hit the target, but we miss the point.” Measuring dignity means choosing to honor the messiness and complexity of human beings. Our hope is that by following these steps and shifting focus from Employee Engagement to Employee Dignity, organizations can stop missing the point and start showing up.
Illustration by Mike Andersen
- Survey Monkey, Importance of Measuring Diversity and Inclusion
- Gallup: The Relationship Between Engagement at Work and Organizational Outcomes
- Dignity Index
- The importance of psychological safety