graphic for The 2018 Index of Predictive Tools in HRTech: The Emergence of Intelligent Software


Engagement: Voodoo and Vision

On August 16, 2012, in HR Scoop, HR Trends, HRExaminer, by John Sumser

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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  • Love the commentary John – When I was looking at Engagement last year, I was amazed by how many companies still felt it had to do with happiness, good work environments, and positive attitudes. In reality the most engaged people are usually your grumpiest individuals, because they are actually vested and working too hard.

    It will be interesting to see if the engagement market will follow the marketing industry – and start looking at engagement based on activities, interactions, and actual buying signs. If it does – you might see more engagement models that outline “Whats in it for me” – and as marketing firms know that is not the same thing for everyone.

  • Jeez, getting slam danced by John Sumser can be fun. Enjoyed the Tater Red’s reference. No sarcasm, John. I just think we define “engagement” differently. I read your commentary and Tincup’s and Heather’s and of the three I have to agree most with Heather. Treat people as adults (i.e., respect them as such) and you will have good workers. Mess with them and, well, pay the price. Personally, I don’t equate engagement with happiness. Or satisfaction. I agree that both of those are bogus criteria to use in a place of work. What you described, however– the staff of a hot restaurant working together during crunch time– is engagement. People are caught in the flow and begin to work harder to see how perfect they can be. I, too, have been there and you’re right, it’s exhilarating. As for the survey you cite, I don’t agree that it implied that 46% of workers are broken (other than those in the lacking emotional maturity category). I believe – and that was the gist of my blog post – that those lost due to a lack of motivation or coachability are the fault of the employer. That taking shortcuts during the hiring and onboarding process – which so many employers have been doing lately – is coming home to roost. That in order to mitigate this unnecessary turnover, employers and the people who manage them have to begin to communicate better and more transparently. By the way, how much is a bottle of that “Boss Ease Off” oil? And does Red’s ship interstate? 🙂

  • Great article John… I could not agree with you more! The
    word “Engagement” is everywhere these days, from annual reviews to
    bumper stickers, but ask someone what it really means and you will seldom get a
    reasonable answer.

    Employee engagement is an idealistic notion, but that doesn’t
    mean we should dismiss it. Maybe we should restate it as “Seeking
    Engagement”, like happiness which has a similar notion.

    It’s hard to argue the results of such organizations as
    Southwest, Zappos and Starbucks. All of which have achieved customer engagement
    through employee engagement.

    One interesting thing about snake oil… is that
    it actually works
    in many cases. 😀

  • That was a lot of fun to read. I was nodding in agreement and disagreement at almost the same time. Very well-written John.

    It will be nice to see engagement cease to be a buzzword and to change. I think it was problematic from the beginning when we paired engagement with the word employee. It certainly is time in the life cycle of this concept to go through revision or revolution from the current form.

  • Interesting perspective John. What happens when employees that are ‘defective’ in one role and ‘made to order’ for another are let go?

    Engagement for the sake of engagement is indeed snake oil, but those companies that saw 46% of their people as “broken” likely missed an opportunity to “re-purpose’ into a different role where they were more suited.

    For example, if the decision makers could look across the organization at benchmarks for various open roles, they may be able to see the naturally chatty accountant matched the ideal benchmark of a sales rep. This means the accountant could, with training, be a great salesman – the analytics would lobby on behalf of the accountant and say “wait, don’t fire him! Give him a shot in sales!” This yields a more productive and engaged employee.

  • Pingback: What Really Engages Employees? | The Staffing Advisor()

  • Pingback: What Really Engages Employees? | Staffing Advisors()

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