Employee Engagement Myths and Pitfalls: Let’s Get Our Act Together Already!

SHRM Starbucks Baristas
World’s Best Staffed Starbucks: San Diego Convention Center, California. (note: two were hiding behind the others, there were 9 in all)

It seems that everywhere you turn these days in the organizational world people are talking about employee engagement. It has really become a phenomenon, and I have to say I am a little surprised at this, while at the same time respecting what part of the market wants.  Another part, and its a big one, just wants to know “how our people are doing” and doesn’t really care what consultants call it. Perhaps the reason for engagement’s rise is that the word is very graphic, it grabs people, and gets them excited about a subject which before was described with words like morale, satisfaction, empowerment, enthusiasm, etc. But what happens at this stage in such a phenomenon is that people come out of the woodwork as “engagement experts”.  Time was when only those with a background in organizational psychology would work in this area but now I see people with varied backgrounds in many other disciplines coming into the field. This is both good and bad: good in that we have a different perspective from such people; we need their creative ideas, and engagement surely does have a communications component, for example. Bad, because some of these people make the most wacky statements about engagement.  I think they do this because they have a limited background in some of the crucial areas which relate to the engagement field, especially measurement. Lets look at a few of the things which are being said:

–“Engagement is a feeling”: no its not.  Because it involves human beings it has a feeling component at first, but it doesn’t stop there.  Engagement is also a choice and a behavior.  We choose to engage with our job and our organization based on the conditions we experience there, and what kind of person we are.  This is exactly where engagement goes beyond morale as a concept:  it extends it with a word which emphasizes action.

–“Organizations can engage people”: no they can’t.  As a result of engagement being a choice, no organization can ever make that happen for anyone who works there.  All it can do is make the conditions so good that the probability that people engage goes up.  That probability will never be 100%, and assuming a great culture awaits them, will depend entirely on what kind of people we hire.  Recruiters and good managers are worth their weight in gold.

–“Engagement cannot be measured”: not true. People who say that engagement is only a feeling also seem to say this. First of all feelings can be measured, otherwise we would not know which is the happiest country on the planet (it varies, usually the Dutch or the Danes); or your doctor would never be able to ask “on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being awful, how bad is the pain?” In any case we do not need to measure feelings to know about engagement. We can look at the behavioral by-products exhibited by engaged people such as advocacy, with a question like “Would you recommend (company name) as a place to work to friends and others in the community?”

–“Engagement shouldn’t be measured”: yes it should. Kris Dunn, who writes very good blogs such as HR Capitalist and Fistful of Talent, had a piece slamming the need for “stinking ” surveys to measure engagement. There is only one problem, or actually two: Dunn also works in HR (VP of People is his title) at a company which has…ready for this…77 people. Well thats easy to say, when all your people can fit into the CEO’s back yard for pizza every week, if he wanted that. Talk to me when you have 770 or 7700, Kris, and lets see if you still feel the same. The second point demonstrates a little double talk on his part: his company is rightly proud of its high position as one of the top Best Places to Work For (R), among US small companies. This is a huge achievement and is trumpeted on the company’s website and very likely used widely in recruitment. But wait a second: the only way they know this and can be ranked on this list is, you guessed it: a survey.

–“Engagement is not proven to drive performance”  Excuse me?  Have you been living in a cave the last 5 years?  Engagement and its cousin, morale, have a huge effect on performance.  And the people who say that are not confused about “correlation not being causation”.  I am one of those people, having written a whole book in 2009 on this subject and brought together the best research in the world.  But don’t just take my word for it, listen to Gallup or the UK group Engage for Success, who did a big study and found the same thing:  morale and engagement drive performance.  If you have engaged people you will have happier customers, healthier workers, make more money and generally achieve your mission better (whether it involves making money or not).  This train has left the station, so please don’t sow doubt as if this is “still undecided”.  Its not.

–“A pig never got fat by being weighed” (translation: we don’t create engagement by measuring it). Believe it or not this was in the McLeod UK government report on engagement released in 2009. Its funny all right, but so totally detached from the real need to measure engagement. OF COURSE the measurement doesn’t create the “thing” itself. I have never heard anyone who said it did. But since the writer of this little ditty likes pigs, lets humor him by giving the following example:

Imagine this: you have 20,000 pigs, in 100 countries; you don’t know how fat each one is but your job is to feed them. Do you: 1) send out the same amount of food to each country, in which case the fat ones get even fatter and the starving ones barely recover? 2) Do some kind of measurement in each country, so that you know how fat or skinny each pig (or small group of pigs) is? Then you adjust the food accordingly. Of course the measurement you do is important. Pigs, like people, lie about their weight. Don’t just ask the pigs in front of their peers….you need a confidential process to make sure you are getting accurate results. I think, I hope…..I made a case for employee surveys. No they don’t create “engagement” but when done well they at least tell you where you are starting from and how far you have come. Then you can target what you do and adjust it accordingly.

Show me a way…..please…. you can do this on almost any scale beyond the tiniest organization, confidentially, generating quantitative data which can be compared to last year and internally between units, without surveys? If you have never measured morale or engagement and discovered centers of management excellence previously hidden in your organization which can become role models for others, you have missed out. Once I carried out a survey for a hospital system and the ER in one hospital scored the worst of any department in that hospital. The manager blamed the local, admittedly difficult social environment with its history of violence, high volume of injuries, etc., but he didn’t get far with that: I was armed with the data from a sister hospital where the environment was equally awful and that ER had the highest morale in its hospital. I suggested the first manager visit the second to find out what works; this would all have been impossible without measurement and internal benchmarking.

Final myth: “peoples’ morale and engagement goes down when they have to work too hard”. This myth is a favorite in places like France.  OK take a look at the Starbucks workers above and ask yourself if they look happy…can we agree they do? Then watch this video of the line which was waiting for them…do I need to say more?

In a new field like this there is a lot of “settling down” which happens as definitions are ironed out between practitioners, in which methodologies are discussed for doing various things. We are at that phase in employee engagement and I expect it to go on for some time.  But let’s not wait too long: our clients (internal and external) such as CEOs and other leaders are pawing the ground expecting us to deliver something well defined, solid and proven to be a performance driverotherwise what is the point? It must improve on what came before. If we cannot do this, engagement will go the route of other management “fads” with no staying power.  I’m an engagement “fan”, I like the power of the idea and its focus on people making powerful choices which benefit themselves and their organization.  I want it to work, but for that to happen, we practitioners have to get our act together….

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LinkedIn profile/contact: http://www.linkedin.com/in/davidbowlesphd

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