Engagement: Voodoo and Vision - by John Sumser - HRExaminer

Voodoo dolls are likely to produce better results.


Besides Graceland, Sun Records and Beale Street, my favorite Memphis institution is Tater Red’s Lucky Mojos. In the back of this voodoo supply store, you can buy a wide variety of snake oils to cure a broad range of ailments (including Boss Ease Off Oil). There are all sorts of magic potions.

There’s a lot of engagement snake oil being sold around our industry. While there is some interesting academic work that shows the possibility of broad based team synergies to turbocharge organizational performance, most engaement projects are designed to improve scores on employee satisfaction surveys. Most engagement projects are really fancy happiness pills.

Voodoo dolls are likely to produce better results.

Industry stalwarts cry that if practitioners would only do this right, they’d get better results. That’s what academics do when their ideas perform well in the lab but go feral in the wild. Blame the practitioners. Claim to have the only true snake oil. Blame the consultants who are spreading the word.

Meanwhile, the HR profession is misguided in its use of the term engagement and the various practices surrounding it.

You don’t suppose it’s an accident that Engagement emerged as a magic cure all potion in the heart of the downturn. It’s not really a surprise that a process that encourages ‘discretionary’ labor would pop up after a national layoff carnival. Is it really that strange that employees are less connected to their work after their comrades have been summarily executed?

Recently, the Hodes blog promoted a “leadership survey” that claimed that 46% of new hires failed within 18 months. The reasons?

  • Coachability (26%): The ability to accept and implement feedback from bosses, colleagues, customers and others.
  • Emotional Intelligence (23%): The ability to understand and manage one’s own emotions, and accurately assess others’ emotions.
  • Motivation (17%): Sufficient drive to achieve one’s full potential and excel in the job.
  • Temperament (15%): Attitude and personality suited to the particular job and work environment.
  • Technical Competence (11%): Functional or technical skills required to do the job.

In other words, all of the failure was due to “observable defects” in the people hired. (Of course, the survey was executed and published by a company with a vested interest in a solution to a problem like that.)

But, think about it. All of the new hire failures were caused by the people who were hired. They all had defects that made them unsuitable for work most places. That’s a silly view of the world. It is simply not true that 46% of the people who get new jobs are broken.

Jobs change, expectations go unmet, cultural integration is not always what it seems to be, decisions get rushed, managers are bad, companies are rotten, coworkers are unpleasant, better jobs emerge elsewhere. These reasons don’t seem to effect the results of this survey. It’s just another bottle of Snake Oil from Tater Red’s.

We are being bombarded with surveys, infographics and advice that seem to make sense until you apply the teensy-weensiest bit of thought to them. Of course, the percentage of new hires who are useless screwups is not that high. And of course, there is no magic formula to increase employee satisfaction. And, the relationship between employee satisfaction and profitability is sketchy at best.

At its heart, engagement is an idealistic notion.

Anyone who has experienced working in a well oiled restaurant during a rush knows what its like to be in an environment where everyone knows there role and executes to the limits of their capacity. There are few things more thrilling to a workaholic like me than that sort of experience. My fellow workaholics (who are genrally the kinds of people who run things) imagine a utopia where everyone lives to work, the company is the center of the universe and heaven feels like a restaurant rush.

“Will you be having fries with your snake oil?”

The truth is that most people work to live. They go to work to finance the rest of their lives. They are happy to deliver professional results to the best of their capability if the system will let them. But they will never see the company as the heart of their existence nor will they derive the bulk of their self esteem from thier work.

They are employees, not owners. And, any program that tries to make them feel ownership without paying them the way that owners are paid is just more snake oil. Owners are owners and employees are not.. In practice, engagement programs set workaholism as an ideal.

The idea that there is something wrong with people who work to live takes root when the economy goes south. The system favors people who will work without requiring compensation. That is the very essence of workaholism

The most idealistic variants of engagement thinking take a different view. They look at the organization and try to remove barriers to performance. Their view is that the organization is the thing most likely to get in the way of performance. It’s a tremendous notion and at the heart of much of the thinking in Organizational Development.

But, OD has suffered for decades because the invested mangement structure doesn’t give up power all that easily. It’s great theory that falls apart in practice. Restaurant flow is driven by great management, not hounded out of people.

The less intelligent (and more prevalent) view is that workers are somehow defective and the root of all problems. That’s agreat story for upwardly mobile young professionals, consultants and other practioners of brown nose voodoo.

It’s hard to find enough workers when half or more of them are defective.

We’re coming to the end of the time where engagement is a vogue buzzword. It simply isn’t working in its current forms. Already, we’re starting to see a groundswell of voices raising this question:

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