10 Things I Want To Hear About on Morale and Engagement at SHRM11

Like a lot of people I am excited to be going to SHRM’s annual conference and exhibition this year in Las Vegas, Nevada and to have a chance to blog from there as I did last year. With so many sessions, I have to focus, which is easy for me with my field of interest and the way the sessions are organized. So I can take in morale and engagement all day long, meet some of the great presenters, take their pictures and blog about their offerings. Having said that I want to make a plea for some breakthroughs this year, in that we need to go beyond the meat and potatoes stuff which has been done so many times. Let’s see if some of the speakers can reach down into their creative psyches to come up with answers to questions which this part of HR and general management needs to answer. Here are some of those which come to mind:

–we think of the US as a very open society in many ways, which is a basic building block for worker engagement; yet we only have average engagement levels according to most who measure this…..why is this?
–the UK is even worse, its engagement levels were recently described by my former employer, HayGroup, as “the worst in Europe”….why is this? Is this a sign that social class issues have a big effect on worker engagement potential in a given society? Do other societal and national cultural factors have a big effect on engagement of workers?
–even if there are societal factors which affect engagement, can universally applicable activities create work environments in which workers choose to engage at high levels, almost no matter the society in which those workers live and work?
–we have heard a lot about “happiness at work” lately; some even say we need that instead of engagement. But is “happiness” enough? Can you prove that it drives performance more than engagement? What happens when the “happy” worker meets the boss from hell?
–executive compensation levels, especially in the US, are back at strastopheric levels. Does your organziation consider this when it approaches worker morale and engagement, like Whole Foods and BMW do? Does your CEO truly get “paid for performance” like the rest of the workforce? What impacts do these things have on engagement levels and if so, what can be/is being done?
–trends in engagement are very tricky to tie down, with big differences between the “big guns” of research and consulting in this field, such as Gallup and TowersWatson. Does this mean that they each define engagement differently, and if so how do we deal with this?
–if we cannot agree on engagement’s definition (see above) how can we convince leaders to go to work enhancing the conditions to bring it about?
–similarly why do organizations still compare themselves with outside morale or engagement “norms”, given the big differences in those norms from one consultant to the next?
–there is a tendency for some people with specific skills in the morale and employee engagement (EE) business to think that they alone have the skill-set to handle things in this field; the internal communications people, the psychologists, the HR specialists, and so on. Is this one reason for all the differences in EE definitions, questionnaires and trend data? What skill or skill mix works best for those who are involved in this field?
–how does individual personality affect engagement? You can create the best work environment in the world…but some still will not engage. This is a personality issue, and we need to know much more about it so that we can avoid hiring such people and deal with the ones we inadvertantly hired.

I’d love to see our SHRM11 morale and engagement presenters cover these and other key questions. They dont have to tell us that engagement goes up when people are treated well at work; that first line managers are the key to engagement; or that morale and EE drive performance, all of which we have known for some time. Let’s go beyond the basics to see some new things, which people can really take home and use. I’ll be there asking these questions and more….and I hope to meet you if these are your interests. Contact me through this blog or on Twitter and add more question topics if you want….I’d love to hear them and can ask them for you if you cant make it to Vegas.

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  1. Hi David

    I’m afraid I won’t be able to make it to Vegas but, having started to follow your blog, I’m beginning to wish I could! You raised to issues that really caught my attention: the connection between happiness and engagement at work; and societal influences on engagement (and happiness), especially in the US and UK.

    To keep the discussions clear, I’m separating my comments into two posts. I’d love to learn your thoughts on my remarks to both.


    First, a note of disclosure. I’m a researcher focusing on happiness at work, so I do have a position on this issue. But my position is not pure personal opinion – it has arisen out of my research. I started my work as skeptic of both happiness and engagement, but have since changed my stance.

    Happiness and engagement at work are certainly closely related topics. Both have many positive effects in the workplace and are tied to performance. However, I believe that happiness does represent a “bigger” concept than engagement for two reasons.

    Engagement focuses on having the opportunity to perform: having a voice, receiving challenging work, enjoying a supportive environment, etc. Happiness, on the other hand, focuses on building the motivation to perform. And, if the opportunity to perform is lacking, happiness focuses on building the motivation to create the opportunity, yourself. Happiness goes beyond engagement by driving performance, rather than simply enabling performance.

    In a related vein, engagement is often operationalized as a primarily top-down initiative. The management is tasked with creating offering the conditions for engagement to their employees, and hoping their offer is accepted. Happiness, on the other hand, is a primarily bottom-up initiative. Yes, the management is responsible for offering the conditions for happiness to their employees. But employees, at least in the initiatives we coordinate, are encouraged at the very start to build their own happiness at work. This means that, when the conditions for happiness are offered (if they weren’t already), employees are more likely to take advantage of them and take an active role in further expanding them. This bottom-up approach not only has the potential to create greater success for the initiative, but also to create a “virtuous cycle” in which building happiness begets opportunities to build happiness.

    My comments on societal influences on engagement (and happiness) will follow in another post.

    Best wishes


    • Simon so good to hear from you. I am a bit busy but really want to get back to you soon, and will. In the meantime let me share with you my reply to the Fortune article in which Jessica was quoted. As you may recall, it talked about happy worker bees….
      Forget about bees…this is a chicken and egg question. The article says that if I am productive I might be unhappy. By the same token, I bet we have all met people who were quite happy but very unproductive. The cofffee cup character from Dilbert is the classic example of this. For me, as a researcher and author in this field, its far too simplistic a view. I would rather have an engaged worker on my team than a simply happy one. Highly engaged workers are known to be associated with high levels of performance, as individuals and as a team; they are more productive, healthier, and have much more satisfied customers. There is so much evidence on the morale/engagement and performance connection that I was able to fill a whole book with it. No such data exists for being happy. I love to be happy and wish that for everyone at work, but until we know that our organizations can benefit from this through performance I dont think it should be our only focus. We might end up with a bunch of those lazy Dilbert characters working with or for us!

      Article and comments: http://bit.ly/jlR60X

      • A couple of points in response:

        No-one wants “worker bees” in any organization or the drones that so often accompany them (unfortunately I don’t get to write the headings when journos interview me – but then neither do the journos who actually write the copy. Hooray for sub-editors). What we all want, promote and support are employees who love their work, do their best and help themlseves and their organizations progress. On that I think we’re all agreed.

        To define our terms a moment. When we refer to happiness at work, we are talking about mindset. That mindset is generally pretty stable unless you actively decide to manage it. We’re not talking about emotional highs, which is I think what you might be thinking about happiness at work. Neither are we talking about general optimism. That’s part of trait based personality. Mindset can alter, be optimized and we know it makes a massive difference: CBT has taught us that.

        Secondly we’ve got quite a body of evidence which suggests that people can be engaged but at the same time they aren’t necessarily happy at work. For example if you have a strong work ethic you’ll knuckle down, report high engagement but in fact also say you’d like to quit. We’ve seen this particularly in failing senior teams who report high engagement, low happiness at work and high intention to quit.

        Thirdly we’ve found that happinness at work matters and especially to Millennials: if we want to attract and retain young top talent, we may all have to get to grips with happiness at work. As one 21 year old said to me this morning, “Engagement – what’s that? Our generation is really aware of what we want from work, and what we’ll do to get it. Screw any one and any organization who tells us we can’t have it.” Powerful stuff from a Cambridge University undergraduate with a job already lined up.

        In our view engagement matters – of course it does. But it’s not the whole story and it’s not the whole answer.

      • Hello Jessica, I know you didn’t write the bees part but I needed it to introduce my own animal analogy of chickens and eggs….. 🙂

        First of all I wanted to say that it’s a real pity I was not able to see you talk in Los Angeles recently; I was all signed up but went down with the flu. I could have had a deeper background in what you guys are all about, which would be useful in this discussion. As I said to Simon, some of this is semantics, like how happiness is defined and how it ties in to the things which I study and write about like morale, engagement, etc. (I dont think of happiness as an emotional high by the way). I also said to him that when all is said and done we probably have a lot in common. Having said that let me make a general comment which is that I am rather skeptical when something new comes into this field and says that it is “the” way, and that other, previously used ways are the wrong way. I worked for a long time with morale, a concept which is well defined and tested and widely used. I then quit consulting for a bit and when I came back I found “engagement” had taken over. Some of its evangelists were quite stridently saying that this was the one path, and morale was “insulting” to talk about, and so on. So when I wrote a book about morale and performance in 2009 (with Cary Cooper), I had fun teasing those who do that, because its just plain silly to throw out such useful concepts. What I am telling you then is that I am not an engagement evangelist and certainly don’t feel that it is the “one path”. I blog frequently about its’ shortcomings, as I did in the recent SHRM piece.

        So in this context I find that some of the writings about happiness seem to sound to me like the early engagement stuff, and pit happiness at work against engagement while anointing a new “winner”. My skepticism goes into code red! On top of that, there are statements that engagement is a top down thing, which it patently is not, that is a misunderstanding (common in Europe for some reason). By its very definition engagement is a choice, and choice cannot be forced on someone, especially not in this area (going through the motions under duress doesn’t count as engagement).

        OK a few more points:
        –you say that some senior individuals are very engaged at work but not happy and want to leave. Yes and I am sure some are “happy” and quite useless at their jobs, not adding value at all…and should leave! Rules nearly always have exceptions, especially in the social sciences.
        –you mention that you met a young person who does not like the word engagement and has various demands on the working world. For me that’s like not liking the word “happiness”, since engaging at work is so much fun and so fulfilling. What would you tell someone who said they didn’t like the word “happiness” related to work?
        –in any case if someone wants to be happy at work then they want high morale, its such a close cousin, but with a twist: happiness doesn’t imply any working together towards common goals, but high morale does. That’s a key, key difference. Morale and engagement have a “we” component, happiness has a “me” component. I want to see more “we” and less “me” at work, don’t you? This recent Crash happened partly because we had…too much “me”.
        –finally although I want to be happy at work like anyone else, I look at the bigger picture of corporate culture and how a “happy” worker deals with a bad culture. I have worked with clients all over the place on measuring and improving cultures so that they can boost morale and engagement. I don’t see how we can look at the individual’s happiness without the context of the culture where she works.

        Jessica I am sure there is lots more to talk about and I look forward to continuing this dialog(ue) with you and Simon! Trust me if you could show that individual happiness at work does all that high morale and engagement can do, and can override/mitigate the many bad cultures out there, I would become a huge fan. I am open to it, just not convinced at this point.

      • Jessica I didnt really cover one thing you said yesterday to my own satisfaction. That is the issue of the CEOs you know who nyou say are “engaged” but are miserable and want to leave. Let me just repeat here something which I just told your colleague Simon. It clarifies my thought that what you are describing is not engagement, but simply a relatively high, (but limited, in my view) level of performance:
        Having said this I will say that I think engagement (like happiness at work, as you describe it) goes beyond performance because it has a strong positive emotional component. So I would disagree that engagement is simply performance, because for me, engagement means you are emotionally connected in a positive way and that is one of the reasons, perhaps the main reason, you perform so above and beyond. As you would say, you are happy. As Jessica said on my blog yesterday, she knows CEOs who are “engaged” but are miserable. I would not really define them as engaged, I would say they perform, that’s all. The level of performance I am talking about simply isn’t possible when you have one foot out the door. OK maybe for a very short time, but this is a burn out situation which I have seen several times.

  2. Hi David

    As promised, my comments on the second issue you raised in your post.


    It is a stretch to say that US (and UK) corporate life mirrors societal life. How many companies practice representative governance, or protect their employee’s freedom of speech? Especially with regards to raising concerns and criticizing leadership? How much leeway do employees have to pursue their interests at work, as opposed to in life? And how much leeway do employees have to make mistakes (and take responsibility for them) before they are ejected from the company? And from society? Compared to even moderately open societies, corporate life is often relatively closed and controlled.

    It is possible that the contrast between corporate and societal life may amplify feelings of disengagement. And what if the expectations of freedom are not met in either work or society? To what extent are people told they have a voice, but are limited in their channels of expression and/or the topics on which they may speak? I don’t think you need to look to far into either corporate or societal life for examples of limitations on both. And such unmet expectations can have all sorts of negative effects.

    I feel myself slipping into more social commentary than morale and engagement in the workplace, so I think I’ll end it there!

    Best wishes


    • Simon you raise some very interesting points about happiness and engagement; of course I don’t agree with all of them, but that’s why these discussions are so useful, so we can exchange viewpoints. I do strongly agree with some, though.

      First the idea that these two things are related is clear. If you are happy you probably have a higher chance of being engaged, and vice versa. I know for a fact that when you are engaged at work you are healthier, for example, and that probably means you are happier. I also know that there is a lot of semantics involved here and things can get confusing, like between happiness, morale and well-being. I find it helpful to divide them into the feeling states like happiness and morale (or in Europe, well-being); and the acting states like engagement, commitment, etc.

      Now lets consider your “top down” complaint about engagement: I don’t agree that that is what it is, because it’s a choice by the worker to engage and you can’t make someone engage. As you rightly point out, the organization has to make the conditions right so that workers make that choice. I am not sure how you can then say its top down, since its all up to the individual to choose, that is where the rubber meets the road. Of course any organization can use it in a top down way, but that is not unique to engagement. If you read about happiness, as I do, there are also situations where employees feel intense pressure to be “happy” all the time, i.e. top down pressure. Remember the relentlessly upbeat “gung-ho” phase? People, got sick of it, I know I did! I just wrote about that in the new book I am writing. So I don’t think that a happiness focus precludes the possibility of top down behavior by management. If they are that way, anything which they get involved with will take on that trait.

      As far as society and engagement mirroring each other, that is not what I am saying. I am saying that one cannot separate a national culture from its organizations, since the people in those organizations are seeped in that culture. You say that some of the ways that government works aren’t applicable to organizations, like free speech, but I say that the very best of the best companies put “free speech” in England to shame (with no nasty libel laws to deal with)! Google is a good example, they are as open a company as I have ever studied. (I am not picking on the good old UK, we have such issues here in the US too). In any case, I was not talking about society at the level of government functions, I was referring to a deeper level within the culture, where for example class barriers and other such things work against engagement at work (and happiness). How else can we explain the extreme worker engagement differences between cultures? The very low engagement in the UK and Germany?
      One would think that Germany (where I live part time) with its powerhouse companies, high wages and huge export success, would be a pillar of engagement, yet it is not. Instead, its culturally-driven social rigidity and formality have a huge effect on how its organizations function.

      A couple more thoughts: the happiest countries don’t have the highest levels of worker engagement. Why is that? They must be related but different. For me, happiness is nice to have but not enough. Happiness says nothing about performance per se. I have no guarantee that a happy worker will “go the extra mile”, stay after 5 if a customer needs it, etc. A happy worker might be quite “happy” to go home as soon as possible, to spend as much time as possible on sick leave so she can go to the beach. Perhaps that makes her very, very happy? What is there in the word “happy” therefore which gives me the drive I am looking for?

      Finally, if you say that you can teach a person to have that drive through being happy, I have a problem with that. If a person arrives at my company with lots of drive, my job is to make conditions good enough for them and give them some goals then get out of the way. If they arrive with low drive, I don’t see why my job is to instill that in them….and even if that is possible. Take it from someone who had very low drive at one time, and was certainly not happy: it was my job, not some employer’s, to sort my way through that, and I did. I was a terrible employee, and knew it. But I did not expect any company to fix that.

      I have blogged a couple of times on this subject so if you haven’t had enough yet (!) you can always look here:

      Happiness at Work 1:


      Happiness at Work 2:


      Simon I appreciate having a dialogue here with you and look forward to chatting more. What I usually find is that after a few back and forward chats, we find we have a lot in common. I am sure that will happen here as well.

      • Hi David

        What would be the fun in agreeing all the time? It is much more interesting to have a discussion involving multiple perspectives! And yes, I’m sure we’ll find plenty of common ground.

        We are covering so many topics that my comments quickly became quite long. I have posted my response as an entry on the iOpener Institute’s blog. Partially, this is to encourage greater readership of both our blogs. Mostly, it’s to make it easier to read by giving it a wider column!

        You are welcome to comment on either existing post, or to craft a response as a new post on your blog. I think an ongoing discussion between our blogs would be a great idea!

        I look forward to hearing from you.


      • Simon yes I agree that a new format on WordPress would be good, I will look when I have time! As far as this being fun yes its great, and really useful too.
        best to you,

  3. Dave your really stepping on some landmine filled real estate when you threaten the massive compensation packages demanded by upper level executives. Also if I close a factory in Peoria and move it China so that my stock performance jumps to acquire my stock linked bonus, who do I serve. Certainly not the community of Peoria and probably not even stockholders that care about the long term of my company. Is this form of capital aquisition inherently flawed, especially when top executives are told (by incentives) to make it their top priority?

    • Hi Richard

      Why is discussion of executive compensation “landmine filled”? Is there a reason to fear discussing it?

      Best wishes


    • Rick, good to hear from you!! I am not afraid, as you would not be, to go against these guys, I think some of them are simply outrageous. In fact my new book will hammer them hard! I am not against the founders, the genius entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, making as much as they can; I am against the “hired hands”, the professional CEOs in the US making 300-400 x the average worker. There is NOWHERE else in the world where it is even close. To add insult to injury, some good studies have shown NO correlation between CEO pay and performance of the organization. In my mind this is a morale and engagement issue. Your point about moving jobs overseas to pump the stock price is another good one, also in the book. However I am not in favor of the heavy hand of government intervention in any of this. I think instead we need a change in consciousness in our organizations, a real shift in our values. If I give you the book subtitle you will see where I stand: “Balancing Me with We”. The celebrated Harvard strategy professor, Michael Porter, has a great article, kinda long but worth it, on this. He says we need to get back to “shared value” (NOT values, quite different), where companies look out for the greater good and not just their own selfish interests. I am 100% on board with this view. Read it at: http://hbr.org/2011/01/the-big-idea-creating-shared-value/ar/1

      All the best to you! D

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