“I think back to things I’ve been “engaged” with in the past they were always things I’d made an investment in - either in time or money. My investment increased my engagement.” - Paul Hebert

Employee Engagement is About Making Things Harder for Employees, Not Easier
by Paul Hebert

For years I’ve had a nagging feeling in the back of my brain that all this hand-wringing around employee happiness and engagement was missing something. I think I’ve decided the missing ingredient is investment from the employee. I see so much of today’s engagement and happiness drivel is about companies DOING something FOR employees. Better food… better nap pods… better, more, nicer. But we all know that giving without expecting reciprocal action leads to a bit of an entitlement mentality. I’ve mentioned the issue of one-way “employee engagement” schemes before here on HRExaminer. Nothing has changed. We still believe we can “create” engagement from whole cloth with gifts and bribes to employees.

The HR community and their pilot fish consultants still sell the idea that giving more to employees will get higher engagement scores and higher corporate productivity/profitability. Yet there is hardly a consensus that engagement and success is a causal relationship. I mean, I know when I’m more engaged with my spouse we have a better life – but I also know that I engage more when we have a better life. Hmmm….

I think back to things I’ve been “engaged” with in the past they were always things I’d made an investment in – either in time or money. My investment increased my engagement. Yet we like to think employees are different. We are averse to asking for an investment to get employees to engage. Don’t get me wrong – we need to provide a return on their investment. That is where the properly designed benefits and reward systems come into play.

I’m firmly in the camp of engagement as a process and byproduct of business success and enlightened management, not its cause. Unfortunately, the perceived logic is stronger to think the arrow of engagement runs forward from engagement toward success rather than backward from it.

My Favorite Time At Work

There are only two times in my career where I was what I would considered totally engaged. Both times were also the worst times in my career. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t dining in a 5-star cafeteria. I wasn’t playing foosball and having a company-sponsored beer on Friday afternoon. The two best times of my career were spent sleeping on the floor of my office for three days in a row. Sleeping would be a stretch because we (the team and I) only slept for about 3 hours each night… day? There were about four of us working on presentations to huge clients. In one case a $40 million annual deal and in the other a $120 million deal over three years. Needless to say these were huge deals – probably close to double that in today’s dollars.

Paul Hebert, HRExaminer.com 2015

Paul Hebert | Founding Member, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

We worked round the clock. We worked in shifts. We hated it. We complained about it, yelled at each other, almost came to blows over it. In one case, we lost the business. In the other case, we won it. The business outcome didn’t change how I felt after either. I wasn’t less engaged after we lost or more engaged after we won. I was however, very engaged after both experiences. And the team in total was energized. We bonded. We worked better in the future than we had before the experience. Even though we had fought during the process we ended up closer as humans, closer as colleagues and closer as employees. We were, a more “effective team” than before.

And all of us – long dispersed to new companies and careers – still remember those times and still rank those experiences as the best times of our careers.

I’m sure if you take a few minutes to relive your career, and pull out your best memory with your wand, like Dumbledore storing a memory in a Pensieve, you’ll find your best times weren’t the times you played foosball at work. It will be the times you worked harder than you thought possible. It will be those times you did what you didn’t think was possible and what you didn’t think the company should have asked you to do. But you did it. You were challenged. You were probably a bit scared. You were probably also exhilarated.

Creating Your Best Teams

If you don’t have an experience like mine when you worked hard for an outcome with your team I feel a bit sorry for you. I still sit around “jonesing” for that experience again. (Sort of. If my boss is reading this – kidding! I have plans this weekend…) It might surprise you to know that what I experienced is a common way in which culture and community is shaped – through extreme shared negative experiences.

Think about that for a minute.

Engagement may not be about happiness or being comfortable. Engagement may be created through challenge and effort. Engagement could be about focusing energy and effort on a common “enemy”.

And there is some evidence to support this point of view.

The Military Understands Engagement

How do you take thousands of strangers with wildly unusual backgrounds and different values systems, experiences, and beliefs and quickly create a focused, engaged team willing to face life and death missions? That is the goal of a military organization. I’d argue it is their prime goal – before the other one of making sure we don’t speak Russian – or Chinese.

One of the ways military organizations build community and culture is through the “boot camp” experience. From what I gather boot camp isn’t fun. It is a long (for those experiencing it) chain of hard physical and mental challenges targeting the individual and the team. When completed, you are “officially” in the club. It is your shared negative experience that draws you together.

And this works because it is an evolutionary principle to help us humans survive by creating and maintaining culture and community focused on the common good of the group. (Hint: Those are also HR buzzwords… time to pay attention.)

Shared Negative Experiences – Try One Soon!

To quote a recent article on this phenomenon:

“…in our evolutionary past, extreme events that threatened the very existence of the community shaped human psychology. When dealing with natural catastrophes like floods, famines, and earthquakes or frequent attacks by hostile tribes, the survival of the community depends on every member chipping in for the greater good: the community has to come together and cooperate closely to survive. Positive events on the other hand – a fortunate discovery of new hunting grounds or an unusually good harvest, for example – do not require such sacrifices from group members because the survival of the group does not depend on it.”

This mirrors my experiences as an employee and reinforces the idea that engagement is not a one-way street. Activating engagement and building culture and community within a company may REQUIRE struggle. Maybe engagement is less about making things “easy” and “happy” and more about putting people into a crucible and allowing the pressure and heat create it?

Lest you think this is simply the authors’ opinion – the post also discusses a simulation they ran to test the hypothesis:

“The researchers ran a computer model simulating evolution under varying sets of conditions: it predicted that extreme cooperation can evolve due to shared negative experience but not shared positive ones. Groups are more likely to survive when shared negative experiences spark a process that makes individual group members more willing to sacrifice their self-interest for the common good. Over time, this tendency for pro-group behavior following negative events becomes widespread. There is no comparable effect of shared positive experiences because the survival of the group is not threatened and individuals do not increase their levels of cooperation.”

So maybe it is time to cancel the group BBQ and bowling event to celebrate success and give your employees impossible tasks to solve under pretty stringent constraints and a common enemy.

You can’t give engagement.

You can’t conjour it with free M&Ms and cotton candy.

You can only allow your employees to earn it.

How many companies look for real challenges to put in front of their employees? How many companies actively look for tough situations where employees must struggle mightily as individuals and teams in the face of long odds – or tough deadlines?

Based on our global employee engagement scores… not enough.

Maybe you should.


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