Paul Hebert, HRExaminer.com 2015

Paul Hebert | Founding Member, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

Employee engagement is a bust. Scores have remained pretty much stagnant for almost 15 years – hovering in the 30% range depending on the survey/company you review. Meaning 70% of employees are either disengaged or just meh. And business has been pouring on the gas trying make that number pop. Consultants and gurus have been blogging and tweeting their little MBAs off trying to get companies to try the latest and greatest teach, talk or tech to get engagement scores to rise. The evidence is clear they all say. Engaged employees mean more money! And companies like money.

But there was something familiar about the story of engagement. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on until I was thinking about corporate training and why we don’t put together a corporate training plan of action when onboarding employees, like college freshman do to ensure they take the right classes as the right time to graduate on time. The idea of schools triggered a memory of something called the “self-esteem” movement.

And then it all clicked. Employee engagement is the self-esteem movement for business.!

You’re Okay – I’m Okay

Many of you reading this may be too young to have experienced the “self-esteem” movement from the outside but if you were born in the 80s on – you are surely one of its products.. The movement took off based on a task force created in California in 1986 to analyze self-esteem and how it related to societal ills. The $750,000 study concluded that:

“Self-esteem is the likeliest candidate for a social vaccine…Lack of self-esteem is central to most personal and social ills plaguing our state and nation as we approach the end of the 20th century.”

That report basically said that every social problem from violent crime, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, homelessness and AIDS should be laid at the feet of low self-esteem. To fix society we must fix self-esteem. And viola! Trophy’s for everyone was the new watchword. And the march to inflate our children’s self-esteem began in earnest!

And it worked.

In the book Generation Me, author Jean Twenge said that by the mid-1990s, the average college male and female had higher self-esteem than their counterparts did in 1968. The average child in the mid-1990s had higher self-esteem than 73%of children in 1979. By 1980, 80 percent of 14- to 16-year-olds agreed with the statement “I am an important person,” up from a mere 10 percent in the 1950s. And though I’m loathe to bring up the “M” word – Twenge said 40% of Millennials believe they deserve a promotion every two years, regardless of whether they deliver results.

We done good. We raised self-esteem and fixed society.

Uh…no.

In 2003 a study entitled “Does High Self-esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?” was released and the authors wrote:

“Our findings do not support continued widespread efforts to boost self-esteem in the hope that it will by itself foster improved outcomes,” the authors warn. In fact, “indiscriminate praise might just as easily promote narcissism, with its less desirable consequences.”

The study found many problems with the literature and research on which the self-esteem movement was based. When initially looking for data on the subject they came up with over 15,000 papers. Too many to go through individually, so they created strict criteria designed to surface the well-designed studies and the most valid data. First off – they noticed that a large majority of the studies relied on self-reported data. They didn’t want self-reported data – that is opinion – not fact. When those studies were eliminated the 15,000 papers become 200. But, many of those used school grades as proof of impact of self-esteem. Unfortunately, when further researched, it was found the grades came first – then the self-esteem. The majority or proponents of self-esteem had it backward. Self-esteem didn’t cause good grades. Getting good grades created self-esteem. At the end of this study the team recommendations was:

“…that high self-esteem be promoted not as a basic birthright but rather as a goal attained through achievements and ethical behavior. In other words, feeling good should stem from doing good. [emphasis mine.]

Does Employee Engagement Follow in Flawed Footsteps?

So let me ask you… did that quick walk down memory lane relating to the “self-esteem” movement (one we are still plowing through as you read this post) seem eerily similar to the employee engagement movement? Isn’t most employee engagement data self-reported? Isn’t much of the data around business performance and engagement simply correlation and little causation? And doesn’t their final commentary on self-esteem sound like great advice on engagement as well?

Isn’t employee engagement the result of employees DOING work that drives success for them and the company? Isn’t engagement behavior-based vs. “a feeling.”

Which came first – engagement or the effort?

Could we look to employee engagement as more about what the employee puts into the game vs. what the company puts in? Could engagement be the outcome of effort not the result of more perks and prizes? Could engagement be something that is created when working toward a common outcome, a common goal.

Is engagement earned?

As I think of many of the recommendations that come from the consultant class around engagement it smacks of much of what schools and parents did to drive up self-esteem. More awards. More recognition. More pats on the back. Less earning and more bestowing. When employees say they are disengaged companies immediately throw another log on the perk fire hoping to drive up the score. Maybe instead of adding more fuel to the fire – they ought to ask the employee to go chop more wood and help build the flame.

Is employee engagement the self-esteem bubble for business?

I think it might be.

What say you?