Paul Hebert, 2015

Paul Hebert | Founding Member, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

The employee engagement “industry” is now a behemoth. Spawned from a comment in an academic journal in 1990, employee engagement has grown to be one of the most talked about topic s with over 26 Million search results on google (funny how search results have now become a proxy for how important a topic is). It is almost impossible to estimate the revenue generated around employee engagement solutions since almost every single product in the market now has some link to employee engagement. (Buy my paperclips and watch engagement soar!)

I am a big fan of engaged employees. I think engaged employees are critical if you want a company that does well and does good. If a company sincerely tries to improve every audience they come in contact with – whether they be stockholders, employees, consumers, or even vendors for that matter – they will be a better company than those that simply angle for the best selfish outcome.

So when I say that the employee engagement industry is based on a false premise I am suggesting that the industry is based on the shaky foundational idea that a company can actually control, via specific interventions, whether an employee is engaged and to what degree they are engaged. The industry talks about engagement scores and engagement outcomes in a way that communicates it believes engagement can actually be measured with any precision. But isn’t engagement like “love?” Can we measure how “in love” we are with people or things? Is there any agreed upon scale of love – or for engagement?

I’m getting off on a tangent now, but my point is this:

Isn’t engagement an employee decision – not a company program?

Foundations of Sand

Almost every employee engagement solution, idea, or concept, is built on the fact that a company can put in place a program or initiative that can create or enhance an employee’s engagement with the company. Everyone says – “If you do this – your employees will willfully shift their discretionary effort to things the organization finds valuable.”

But the reality is that employees aren’t mindlessly following the carrot on the string. When given the opportunity, employees will more likely shift their discretionary effort to things THEY find valuable.

I submit that the core of employee engagement is a conscious decision on the part of the employee to want to engage and not a program that “creates” engagement. Therefore, any and all attempts to influence the employee’s engagement with the company is at best ineffective and in most cases, wasted. Employees have to choose to be engaged with their work and decide to care about what the company cares about. This is 180 degrees from most engagement suggestions. Most engagement activities hold a “cause and effect” point of view. “Do this… and employees will engage.” But I believe any program or initiative a company puts in place to drive engagement is tilting at the wind mills of the real issue, which is whether the employee even wants to engage with the company. And employees choose to engage when a company connects with them as human beings and not as resources.

I know that sounds simplistic but it is the one thing I see ignored in many engagement initiatives.

Companies can have horrible business practices and believe putting foosball tables in the lobby will drive engagement. Up the 401K match and engagement follows suit. Add organic food in the cafeteria and scores rocket up! At best these companies are creating very expensive mercenaries and at worse… they are creating very expensive mercenaries.

Start with the Employee First and Only

Employee engagement is human and simple. But companies can’t do human and simple. I think most managers (read: companies) think if it is simple, they are doing it poorly, and then they are incompetent. They can’t think that. It can’t be a human issue because it has to be a systems issue, because everything these days is a systems issue. It’s all about the process right? It’s about creating a common system that everyone uses. That’s how we get the data to make future decisions. We need to eliminate the variability in order to get to the common engagement issues. We are making it complicated and we are making it efficient.

But unfortunately, engagement is human AND inefficient.

Choose A Human Foundation

Relationships are the most inefficient thing in the world. You know it. I know it. But we want to ignore that fact when the humans we want to have relationships with are business humans. Why do we think those relationships are different?

They aren’t.

For engagement to take hold in your company you need to remove the barriers of efficiency and complexity.

Remove the systems between your employees and your managers. Remove the artificiality the system imposes. Sure… track data – use data – up until the point you actually sit across the table, the desk, the bench with the employee. Then use your human skills. Help your employee decide to engage by showing them you care about them.

Engagement isn’t manipulation. Engagement isn’t causation. Engagement is conversation. I think we are continually trying to codify and systematize a business issue that is impossible to put into a system. The foundation for all engagement discussions are always about a system and process to measure and report it. That’s how you manage a machine not a person.

Ask employees to engage. Don’t try to push it. Make engagement something they want to do – not something they think you’re trying to “get” them to do.

That is real. That is human. That is the foundation for long-term success.

Conversation and caring.

Or buy a new system and watch your engagement scores… stay the same.

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