It’s all about experiences these days. At the heart of the movement is the ability for businesses to manage experience in order to be successful, or as Qualtrics puts it: “Better people experiences. Better business outcomes.” It wasn’t always like this, though.

Not long ago, hardly anyone discussed ‘experience’ within the business context. Instead, it was all about ‘customer satisfaction’ and ‘employee engagement.’

CX was first. A quick look at Google Trends paints us a picture: ‘Customer satisfaction’ topped the charts for decades, but CX closed in on it about 4-5 years ago and never looked back. Reflecting the times, businesses and brands made it clear that a customer being merely satisfied wasn’t enough. It needed to be bigger, more all-encompassing.

It’s now happening with EX. For years, ‘employee engagement’ was the most critical metric that People Teams and HR departments tracked (many still do today). We’re at an inflection point, however, where EX is starting to supersede ‘employee engagement’ as the primary strategic focus and KPI, just as it did for CX a few years ago.

Bringing experience to bear for better business outcomes, or so we think

As a business and organisational psychologist, I have to say I’m happy about these changes. It involves a more holistic, accurate view of the human being. Importantly, this more human scientific approach comes with the promise of better business. Capturing the end-to-end employee journey generates positive outcomes for organisations and their people through happier and more productive employees.

But, like anything, change is imperfect. While it’s good that we’re looking at the complete end-to-end experience of a person in the workplace, it also means that leaders are tasked with delivering on these somewhat theoretical promises. In practice, we’re still wrestling with some important questions: How do we track EX? What is the right way to measure it? And, even more upstream of these, what do we really mean when we say ‘experience’?

Many leaders today know that EX is important for their business, but they’re at a loss of where to begin or where to spend their time and money to get the best return. Fortunately, we have just the tool to help us: behavioural  science.

Understanding experience as a (behavioural) science 

Experience isn’t new. About 150 years ago, understanding people’s experiences was very much in vogue, particularly for scholars who belonged to the branch of study called phenomenology. It served as a sort of intellectual doorway into behavioural  science. Oddly enough, the talk of experiences all but disappeared for about a century. It wasn’t until the last few years that it was given new life in the more business-related context of EX (and CX).

Borrowing from psychology and behavioural science research, here are just two things that will help narrow the focus so that we can begin to execute on EX and impact the business. In a word, they are:

  1. Breaking down EX into its core psychological components
  2. Measuring EX with the right tools

Let’s look at both of these in turn.

Breaking down EX into its core psychological components

There’s a widely used and longstanding theory in behavioural science called  “The Trilogy of Mind.” It argues that, for all its complexity, the entire human experience is the result of three core components: cognition (thought), affectation (emotion), and conation (intention), ultimately leading to (in)action. 

Using this model, let’s look at a common example in EX – an employee being committed to going above and beyond.

Throughout a journey, an employee will make a series of big and small decisions demonstrating their commitment to the organisation. But it’s not enough to simply ask a person, “Are you committed?” Nor is it enough to guess that someone is committed (or not) based on their actions. Indeed, most EX work pays attention only to the end action. But they fail to look upstream at the inputs which led to that action.

Applying the above tripartite model it helps to think of the sequence: 

Cognition (thinking) → Affectation (feeling) → Conation (setting an intention) →→  (In)Action

Let’s say an employee does the bare minimum following an important call. It appears they’re not really committed at that moment (‘Action’). But we must go back in the psychological sequence to understand why that’s happening.

Starting with ‘Cognition’. While the employee is on the call, they are distracted, investing less cognitive resources in paying attention to the information coming in (spoken, written, implicit cues between colleagues and bosses on the call, etc.). Next is ‘Affectation’. Emotionally, they feel bored, tired, and then irritable that the people on the call ask them to go above and beyond. Finally, with ‘Conation,’ the employee is less motivated to set the intention for what behaviour needs to happen. And when this happens, research has shown that a reduced intention is a recipe for inaction and failed execution. In this case, the result is a choice not to engage in the extra set of actions being asked of them. 

With this example, we can see many elements of EX. Breaking the pieces down gives us the ability to target more precisely. With intelligent data collection and the right measurement strategy (more on this below), you can even start to see if one part is a bigger drive than the other. 

Perhaps boredom is the bigger issue because the employee isn’t being challenged in their current role (Affectation). Or maybe it’s the inattention piece because they are overworked and distracted (Cognition). Without unpacking the experience, you’d never know this. 

Measure EX with the right tools

Parsing out the different EX elements is necessary for success, but it’s not enough. You have to be able to measure the other parts once you have them in front of you. The importance of measurement in business is captured in the following: “If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.” 

Every day, employees everywhere around the world are being evaluated, surveyed, and assessed on their experience in the workplace. But I’ve noticed many of these tools are poorly designed and based on bad science or lazy thinking. Take eNPS, for example. Inspired by its original Net Promoter sister version for measuring customer satisfaction, eNPS goes after employee engagement with the same style of a single-item question: “How likely is it that you would recommend to a friend or family member working for company X?” 

Here’s the thing: Net Promoter Score, whether for employees or customers, is a misguided metric that does more harm than good. NPS and eNPS crept their way into every nook and cranny of business intelligence, and far too many senior leaders have been charmed by its simplicity. The creator of NPS himself sees the error in over-relying on the metric: “As its popularity grew, NPS started to be gamed and misused in ways that hurt its credibility.”

Here’s another notorious player in the game of poor workplace measurement. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI, is easily one of organisations’ most popular measurement tools. It’s also one of the worst. For years, author and psychologist Adam Grant has lamented his long overdue “breakup” with MBTI:

“Sure, I hurled some insults. I called you unreliable and shallow. I compared you to a physical exam that ignores your torso and one of your arms. I said you might be more like a horoscope than a heart monitor.”

And yet, MBTI continues to be sold as a so-called reliable insights solution to support the EX journey, from recruitment and talent management to team selection. As Grant, and other scientists have pointed out, it is total pseudo-science and a waste of company money. 

Final thoughts

Fortunately, the tides are turning. With more of my fellow scientists seated at the table, businesses are making better, more informed decisions based on sound measurement strategies. I’ve noticed there’s more of this ‘scientific mindset’ in senior leadership teams than ever before. Together with this shift in thinking are intelligent analytics and digital capabilities, which can provide a recipe for success in delivering EX.

A word of caution, though: throwing a new-fangled technology at EX won’t solve your problem. You need the behavioural scientists and psychologists right up front and centre, involved in developing and refining your EX initiatives to get the best bang for your AI buck.

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