Research alert – is Gallup’s latest ‘global trends’ engagement survey helpful or hurtful?

Podcast transcript:

What is the Gallup State of the Global Workplace Report anyway?

Each year, US market research company Gallup produces a ‘State of the Global Workplace Report’, which aims to bring a clear and accurate picture of engagement levels in the workplace along with headline advice on what to do about it.

The research findings for 2023 are based on 122,416 respondents across 160 countries, with sampling in each country designed to match the demographics of the country’s working population.

How is the world doing when it comes to employee engagement?

The message carried by Gallup’s 2023 survey is, let’s say, mixed. According to Gallup, global engagement levels are at an all-time high since they started their annual research report in 2009! This is good news. Or is it? Actually, according to Gallup, even though the employee engagement trend is upward by their measure, they claim that only 23% of employees are actually engaged at work, with 59% ‘quiet quitting’ and 18% actively disengaged.

So while engagement is on an upward trend, we are told that less than a quarter of employees are engaged at work: that means less than a quarter are involved, enthusiastic, willing to go the extra mile to drive performance and innovation.

That’s pretty awful… surely it can’t get any worse?

Break it down to country level and the picture is even more bleak. While the US flies relatively high with an engagement figure of US 34%, in Europe, relatively few countries reach that level. Romania for example, does achieve 35%. But Germany sits at 16%, the UK 10%, with France and Italy languishing at 7% and 5% respectively.

On the face of it, this looks extremely depressing. 95% of Italian workers are not willing to impart discretionary effort at work. 93% of French workers fall into the same camp. And 90% of UK employees.

It almost makes you want to give up. Or perhaps to look for solutions to remedy this dire state of affairs. Helpfully, Gallup has provided some hints as to what you can do by describing some of its own services to relieve the corporate reader’s pain.

I would like to provide a personal view here not just of Gallup’s annual engagement survey findings (although I am using it as an example), but really some pointers on making sense of any research report – what to look out for from a positive point of view, and also from a contrary perspective, so that you can draw your own conclusions on what’s helpful and what’s not so helpful in research such as Gallup’s.

The good

Sampling – by their description, Gallup’s study has applied a pretty strong ‘stratified’ sampling approach to get as representative a view as possible from workers in the countries it sampled. Which means that the data is likely to present an accurate set of views of each country’s workforce. Sample sizes in some countries may be smallish but if you apply the right sampling frame, you can still get a pretty accurate picture of who you’re looking to survey.

Breadth of countries – 160 countries is pretty impressive by any definition and certainly adds to the sheer heft of Gallup’s market research global footprint.

Comparability – the fact that we are looking at exactly the same data year on year makes annual trending possible and is best practice in longitudinal research. You don’t want to be meddling with the questions you ask each year (even if some of them could be improved), because that would mean you couldn’t track trends over time with accuracy. Gallup scores well here.

The not so good

No peer review process – as with most proprietary commercial research, Gallup’s data and analysis are not scrutinized by any external ‘peer review’ process. By contrast, when you publish research in scientific journals, you have no option but to have your research methodology, analysis, discussion and conclusions come under intense scrutiny, typically in a ‘blind’ review process, where reviewers don’t know who wrote the original research. It can take months or even years before reviewers are happy that what they are looking at is research that is sufficiently reliable and valid to be shared with their readership. An academic journal’s reputation is based on the integrity of this process. And it isn’t required at all for commercially-driven research.

We don’t know how engagement is being calculated – Gallup themselves say that their engagement metric is proprietary and therefore we don’t know how they calculate how many people are, by their definition ‘engaged’, ‘not engaged’ (that’s the quiet quitters) or ‘actively disengaged’ (the people who may be loud quitters or sabotaging stayers). This is a problem, because we can’t compare Gallup’s research findings with the findings from other engagement surveys that we might have access to, to see if there’s agreement or differences in the data. From our own employee engagement surveys for example, or from other publicly available engagement surveys that we might find.

US bias? – for me, there is a question mark about some of the questions being asked. For their engagement measure, Gallup use their proprietary Q12 questions, which they state have been rigorously tested globally to ensure that they are a valid and reliable measure of engagement. I’ve included the Q12 questions in the Appendix to this article. But do all the Q12 questions translate equally well outside the US? Question 10 of the Q12 asks you to rate the statement ‘I have a best friend at work’. In the US, this typically means a good friend. In the UK, however, ‘best friend’ can be interpreted as the one person in the world who you are closest to. I wonder, and it’s a personal view, how much cross-cultural equivalence testing has been undertaken by Gallup to make sure that all of the Q12 questions are understood in the same way by people from all 160 countries surveyed. This could have a significant impact on country variations in the data.

Access to the report is gated – this is standard for commercial research and is a classic marketing tool. So it’s no criticism, just an observation. Gate your intellectual property and you can collect the contact details of the people who download it, then having your marketing team ‘nurture’ those contacts until such time as they are sufficiently qualified to warrant contact from your sales team. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this at all. But it indicates that Gallup’s annual engagement survey is at least in part being used for marketing purposes.

There are no direct comparator reports – while there are lots of research companies offering engagement surveys into organizations, there are relatively few that are available publicly on a rolling annual basis.  In fact, on researching the market, I couldn’t find a single comparable alternative. This effectively means that Gallup has a monopoly on the annual global engagement survey market, which puts them in a very strong commercial position, with no one offering a viable alternative based on a contrasting measurement approach. And that type of dominance isn’t particularly healthy when it comes to the world of research.

Proposed solutions play directly into Gallup’s consulting offer – again, this is no surprise. Gallup is a commercial organization offering wide ranging consulting services. But it is something to be aware of. Gallup subtly advertises its own solutions within the body of its annual engagement survey report. The CEO’s introductory statement on the first page of the report is a good example of that. Does this undermine the integrity of the report? Not necessarily, it’s what we would expect. But it should lead us to ponder on the motivation of publishing a research report that, to all intents and purposes, appears to be robust, objective, science-based and designed for the greater good.

My advice

First up, take commercial proprietary research reports with a pinch of salt. Second, ask more questions of the data rather than accepting headline-grabbing statistics at face value. Check other sources to see if there is alignment. Check your own company survey data to see if that’s aligned. Finally, ask yourself whether the research report you’re reading is helpful and useful in your work, or whether it’s more likely to have a negative or damaging impact.

There is no doubt that there is value to be had from this type of research and specifically from Gallup’s annual research report. Reports like this can be a useful way of trending workplace sentiments. But we should always dig a little deeper wherever we can, to uncover more of the true picture. Till next time, stay strong.



Appendix – Gallup’s Q12 engagement questions and engagement definitions

The Q12 engagement questions, copyrighted to Gallup Inc

  • I know what is expected of me at work.
  • I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
  • At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
  • In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
  • My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
  • There is someone at work who encourages my development.
  • At work, my opinions seem to count
  • The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
  • My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.
  • I have a best friend at work.
  • In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.
  • This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

Gallup’s definitions of engagement categories, copyrighted to Gallup Inc

  • Engaged employees are thriving at work. They are highly involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace. They are psychological “owners,” drive performance and innovation, and move the organization forward.
  • Not engaged employees are quietly quitting. They are psychologically unattached to their work and company. Because their engagement needs are not being fully met, they’re putting time but not energy or passion into their work.
  • Actively disengaged employees are loudly quitting. They aren’t just unhappy at work. They are resentful that their needs aren’t being met and are acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers potentially undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish.