Everything Causes Everything Else

catfight. By Dennis Carr
Catfight. Photo courtesy of Dennis Carr.
Do you need to be engaged at work to be effective?  Sure, maybe.  But maybe not.

A provocative article by Alec Levenson from 2015 argues that Employee Engagement Does Not Cause Performance.  Levenson says the notion that employee engagement causes performance “makes intuitive sense yet does not hold up empirically.”  He argues that the link between engagement and performance is correlation, not causation.  Or rather, if there is causation it is probably the reverse; better corporate performance probably causes higher employee engagement.

I think this interpretation is consistent with the idea that a thriving and growing organization will tend to be in hiring mode and have a larger number of new hires who are in a high-engagement honeymoon phase.  Thriving businesses have newer machinery and newer buildings, and employees are subjected to endless compliments from family and friends for getting a good job at a winning company.  These factors may drive engagement regardless of the work experience.

Levenson notes that the statistical models are troublesome as they can confirm causation in either direction.  It’s a real problem in statistics.  Sometimes the causation can go in both directions or in a circle.  I exercise, so I sleep well, therefore I eat well, and – behold – I have energy to exercise.  Hiring is down, so consumer confidence is down, thus consumer spending is down, and hiring drops further.

Often there is a third factor causing everything else to happen.  Two major drivers of engagement are a collaborative workplace culture and pro-social front-line managers who make positive interventions.  Yet those items can drive productivity directly and engagement directly, resulting in a spurious correlation.

Within the economics field, there is a dirty little secret that everything causes everything else.  Economies are incredibly complex, and economic models often get more accurate as you add a larger number of variables.  Usually the biggest drivers of the economy are things like oil prices, interest rates, housing starts in the US, and consumer spending in China.  When you throw those major drivers into any cause-and-effect model, you usually discover that your personal project is not such a big deal.

However, I think the debate about the direction of causation is moot.  The world is a big, hot mess of major forces driving success and failure, and every now and then someone is able to make the case that they themselves caused everything to happen.  So what should you do?  Give appropriate thanks and move on with your own contribution.

As for the statistical causation, just take your placebo.  Take vitamins, drink that one glass of red wine per day, show up, answer the phone, and go with the flow.  After all, it’s really about your personal engagement, isn’t it?  And maybe the people working next to you.  So help them out, too.  Maybe you can help build team spirit and create a little spurious correlation while you’re at it.

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