Employee engagement

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Let’s start with excerpts from articles appearing on the websites of Fast Company and Financial Review.

From Fast Company:

You’re sick of hearing about “employee engagement.” You already know why it’s so important for your team members to be happy at their jobs, and you’re fully aware that legions are not. To be sure, low engagement has real problems: productivity, work quality, and collaborative abilities are all on the line. When team morale sinks, work culture suffers, and a whole manner of consequences can follow.

But knowing all that isn’t the same as solving it. And one reason so many companies manifestly fail to solve it is because the bar is set too low: Your employees shouldn’t just be content or “engaged.” In order to really succeed as a company, they need to be passionate. You need to hire people who genuinely fall in love with everything about your company—your brand, your services, your products, your passion. Some businesses are already figuring out how to tap into the enthusiasm of their most loyal customers for recruiting purposes. This way, consumer and employer brands can become mutually reinforcing.

Source: 3 Reasons Why “Employee Engagement” Isn’t Enough, by Barry S. Saltzman, in Fast Company.
And from Financial Review:

One of the largest private enterprises in the world has started weeding out one of the longest running ‘rackets’ in human resources: annual employee engagement surveys.

The lead partner of KPMG’s global HR transformation centre of excellence, Robert Bolton, said the professional services firm, which employs 162,000 in cities all over the globe, will strive to swap employee engagement surveys for a more robust diagnostic that focuses on “something truly worth measuring”.

Hard evidence is mounting that contrary to popular belief, engagement doesn’t drive performance. In fact, the inverse is true. Performance drives engagement.

Source: KPMG dumps ‘abused’ staff surveys, by Agnes King, in Financial Review.
Given that engagement programmes continue to be spectacularly ineffective (according to Gallup¹, only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged at work), why don’t all enterprises follow KPMG’s lead and abolish them?

¹ Source: State of the Global Workplace report
The answer is, in part, because so many people, including organisation development professionals, survey firms and software vendors, have too much invested in the engagement paradigm. Engagement is how they earn their living. When the efficacy of employee engagement work is challenged, their stock response is: “You’re doing it wrong.”

Credit: Virpi Oinonen | @voinonen | Businessillustrator.com

“There is a massive industry behind the belief that if a company drives up engagement productivity will increase.

Source: KPMG dumps ‘abused’ staff surveys, by Agnes King, in Financial Review.
Trying to engage a person is like trying to dance them. It cannot be done.
Dance? No thanks!
The engagement model is fundamentally flawed. It will never work.

Gary Hamel puts his finger on it in these passages from his book The Future of Management:

If there was a single question that obsessed 20th century managers, from Frederick Taylor to Jack Welch, it was this: How do we get more out of our people?

At one level, this question is innocuous—who can object to the goal of raising human productivity?

Yet it’s also loaded with industrial age thinking: How do we (meaning ‘management’) get more (meaning units of production per hour) out of our people (meaning the individuals who are obliged to follow our orders)?

Ironically, the management model encapsulated in this question virtually guarantees that a company will never get the best out of its people. Vassals and conscripts may work hard, but they don’t work willingly.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant said something similar:

Always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.

Employees dont want to be engaged. They want their work to be meaningful.

What do I mean by “meaningful”?

That which makes life and work truly worthwhile.

So said Edward Matchett, a Rolls-Royce design engineer whose groundbreaking work in the fields of creativity and innovation has contributed significantly to my own work in these areas and beyond. I’ve yet to find a better definition.

Andy Spence, a UK-based management consultant and founder of Glass Bead Consulting, undertook “a quick review of the scientific literature” and found very little research into where and how people find their work meaningful.

Fortunately, his enquiries led him to Katie Bailey, Professor of Management at University of Sussex. She was a member of a research the team that interviewed 135 people working in 10 very different occupations—retail assistants, solicitors, nurses, soldiers, stonemasons, street sweepers, entrepreneurs, priests, artists, writers and academics—to hear about times when they found their work meaningful.

The overwhelming majority of people seem to find meaning in at least some aspect of their job. In fact, 86% of people said that their jobs were meaningful.

Source: Katie Bailey, cited here.
The research team subsequently identified five predominant characteristics of meaningful work:

  • Self-transcendent: Meaning arises when working for a higher goal.
  • Poignant: Meaning is not always a joyful experience.
  • Episodic: Meaning may not be an everyday occurrence.
  • Reflective: Meaning may be experienced retrospectively.
  • Personal: Meaningful work can provide meaning beyond the workplace.

Read more about meaningful work

Katie Bailey’s Meaningful Work website

The Campaign for Meaningful Work

The Seven Deadly Sins Preventing Meaningful Work

What Makes Work Meaningful?

More quotes

When a company claims they want to engage employees, doesn’t that basically code for: “We will treat you like disposable monkeys”?

Source: Niels Pflaeging.

Here’s the dirty little secret of employee engagement ideas: most people don’t care about it. They’re not tasked to care about it, and their performance evaluations and chances at more money aren’t tied to it. Also, employee engagement as a base-level concept is hard to measure — and things that are hard to measure tend to be ignored in businesses.

Source: Employee engagement ideas: Cut the BS, by Ted Bauer, on The Context of Things.

Employee engagement is ultimately qualitative. So instead of trying to turn something that’s qualitative into something that’s quantitative, just stop trying to quantify it at all.

Source: Quit measuring employee engagement, by Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Company.

Unless you recognise that employee engagement is an enabler not an outcome and you’re prepared to address at least all of the above holes in your otherwise leaky OD bucket, then please drop the engagement word. You’re wasting your time, doing yourself and your organisation an injustice and giving the people disciplines a very bad name.

Source: Don’t you realise, employee engagement is a leaky bucket? by Ian Buckingham, on LinkedIn.

So, why is employee engagement a distraction? Because it has limited impact. True, it generates a substantial improvement in productivity, but it’s a one-time improvement. The research shows that an engaged employee is more productive than an employee who is not engaged. But I’m not aware of any research that shows that engaged employees become more and more productive over time.

Source: The Big Shift From Engagement to Passion, by John Hagel.

We don’t actually know what employee engagement is.

Source: The Campaign for Meaningful Work, by Andy Spence, on HR Transformer website.

Further reading

3 Reasons Why “Employee Engagement” Isn’t Enough, by Barry S. Saltzman, in Fast Company

Decline of the Employee Engagement Empire, on TalentMap

Don’t you realise, employee engagement is a leaky bucket? by Ian Buckingham, on LinkedIn

Employee Engagement Isn’t Getting Better And Gallup Shares The Surprising Reasons Why, by Marc C. Crowley, on LinkedIn Pulse

The End Of ‘Employee Engagement?’ by Rodd Wagner, in Forbes

KPMG dumps ‘abused’ staff surveys, by Agnes King, in Financial Review

Quit measuring employee engagement, by Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Company

The Big Shift From Engagement to Passion, by John Hagel.

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