Employee Engagement

8 reasons why Employee Engagement is in danger of disappearing up its own arse by Keith Hatter.

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I believe that work can and should be a force for good. It can provide meaning in our lives, it can be a psychologically safe place where we can learn and get better and where, in the pursuit of a mission, our best selves can flourish.

That’s why I believe engagement really matters and so it’s also why I’m deeply frustrated witnessing a thing that has the potential to be a force for good, get stuck in a cycle of rinse and repeat disappointment.

I also know that there are enough leaders who feel a similar way, many of them hard working, passionate professionals who want to make a difference for the people who work in their organisations. This is for you.

1. The link to its original purpose has been pretty much forgotten

Ask any group of people who have a primary responsibility for engagement (the fact that those groups exist is in itself an indication one of the other problems but let’s not get onto that one yet) what the purpose of engagement is and the chances are you’ll get lots of different answers:

  • to make work a place full of meaning and inspiration
  • to help as many people as possible feel happier
  • to make work more enjoyable
  • to drive better business results
  • to improve performance

Engagement is on the edge of becoming what beer is to Homer Simpson – the cause of, and solution to, all our problems.

Now all of these answers are very worthy. Of course they are – the opposite of them would never be true. “Let’s set up a group to make this place as frustrating and annoying as possible for everyone who works here” said no leader ever (though unwittingly some seem to be having a proper go). For a purpose to have meaning, there has to be an opposite position that might be true.

It wasn’t always this way. Engagement was founded on a simple premise to solve a simple problem. The problem was that large numbers of people seemed to have little or no emotional or psychological attachment to their work and that lack of meaning and connection meant that they weren’t bringing their best selves to work every day.

For their organisations, that was leading to levels of performance and results that surely could be better. We now know that this disconnect was also leading to poorer mental health and physical well-being. The prize seemed enormous – we could deliver better organisational results and have healthier, more fulfilled people. Engagement needs to work harder to show its helping deliver organisational results in a way that shows cause and effect direction, not just correlation. Right now, it’s not doing that.

Engagement has to get back to its original purpose – to connect basic human needs with organisational results – including profit where applicable. If it continues to fail in this, then its credibility with the very people it needs onside will diminish and it will become an increasingly irrelevant sideshow.

The one thing that strikes me about all the employee engagement events and conferences I’ve been to in the last 10 years, it’s that I can’t remember a single one where engagement activists could show any cause and effect or where a CEO or FD spoke about how engagement in its current form is delivering better results. Mostly it’s a group of activists and advocates talking to each other and in the history of the world, that’s never made much of a difference.

2. Despite fortunes being spent, the current approach isn’t working

When’s something’s not working, simply pressing the pedal harder in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary is nothing short of hubris. When the evidence that it’s not working is supplied by the very people pressing the pedal harder, it’s just a bit bizarre.

Perhaps they’re right and like Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, they believe that “the night is darkest just before the dawn.” The problem is that this belief flies in the face of all the evidence. Unsurprisingly, we seldom hear those who profit from the current approach question its effectiveness – instead we hear “you have to work harder and do more of it”. There are a lot of organisations with vested interests and who are making a lot of money out of the current approach, so maybe that’s not a big surprise.

The data is clear. It doesn’t seem to matter which set you use, how you cut and slice it and which period you use to examine it, the number is barely moving. Enormous quantities of shareholder and stakeholder funds and resources have been spent on analysing and improving engagement in nearly two decades now. And the needle has barely moved. In the last 10 years, it has moved by less than 5% points. Given that, it’s extraordinary that engagement as we know it is still a thing. In corporate life particularly, if you simply looked at the data, this current approach to engagement (let’s call it Engagement 1.0,) would have been killed off at least 10 years ago as an inappropriate and wasteful use of resources. If change is not made, that day is coming.

3. The science is being ignored in favour of a dessert trolley

There’s around six decades of high quality science based research on human motivation, examining why us humans do what we do – the science behind our motivation. That research, carried out across a range of sectors, activities and nations, shows that there are some simple human needs that need to be met for high quality motivation (i.e. engagement) to exist.

Interestingly, that research provides no evidence that any of the following is crucially important:

  • the company BBQ
  • bring your dog to work day
  • birthday cards
  • dress down (or up) days
  • ice creams or other party food
  • having a best friend at work
  • recommending this as a great place to work
  • asking lots of questions about how happy everybody is

Like the contents of a dessert trolley in a great Italian restaurant, all these things are fine and lovely… and just like the lovely things on the dessert trolley, they don’t really matter.

I’ve also got some anecdotal evidence here which is a lot less robust than the research, though it might be worth a moment’s thought. Whenever I ask those charged with improving engagement in their organisation why these questions are being asked, the most frequent answer I get is something like “so we have a clear picture of how engaged everyone is.” Surely the point is to understand what the people in your organisation need to feel engaged. It’s about them, not you. A subtle, though perhaps important difference.

The research shows that for motivation and engagement to be high then us humans want 3 things:

  • to have a sense of choice so we have a degree of control in our world
  • to have a strong sense of competence leading to robust levels of confidence
  • to know that we are part of something bigger that matters more than just the individual, so we feel connected to each other and/or to a sense of mission

So engagement needs to stop asking irrelevant dessert-trolley-type feel-good questions. The engagement community could do worse than spend all the money and resources on measurement that’s not making any difference on creating an environment where the things that matter flourish.

Science and research has told us the answer. So let’s stop asking the fucking question and focus acting on the things we know that work. It’s like spending 15 years trying to establish how humans lose weight, when the answer – eat less and move around more – has been known to us for decades. Science has given us the answer – we need to work the problem.

4. The “We Know Best” attitude

At what point did the engagement community award itself the role of knowing what’s best for everyone in the organisation when it comes to their engagement? There’s a quiet arrogance here that isn’t helpful.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve asked those tasked with engagement (I know – there’s so much wrong with that phrase) in different organisations “why are you asking question A, B or C?”, particularly when the link between the question and what the research shows is at best tenuous.

Often they’re not 100% sure what they’re trying to get out of that question and digging a bit deeper, these questions seem to have their roots in the self-interest of the engagement survey corporations or a well-meaning, though ill-informed, idea of “happiness”. The upshot is that “we know best what people need around here to be engaged. If our high performers are not our most engaged, then that’s a problem for them and their leaders.” The problem never seems to be that we might have got our entire approach wrong in the assumptions being made, the prejudice behind the questions and the “we know best” attitude.

Very seldom, if ever, do I get a response that says “well we’ve looked at our highest performers over the last 10 years and we have a really clear picture of what they need, in each different part of the organisation, for their motivation (engagement) to be high. So every so often, we check in to see how well we’re doing in working together to help those conditions become reality”.

The use of the word “Employee” in “Employee Engagement” is indicative of the issue here. Firstly, it ignores those who work and who are not employees. Secondly, it suggests a deeply hierarchical approach to the issue. Thirdly, if the logic is followed, then in most conventional organisations, the shareholders must be the people who are responsible for employee engagement since everyone else, including the CEO, is an employee. Just saying.

5. Focusing on the wrong type of happiness

In his fabulous article in The New York Times in 2013, Cliff Oxford wrote about how the pursuit of a particular type of happiness, that he called “HR Happiness” was very different to the sort of happiness that’s seen in organisations who are serious about performance. Engagement seems to have become synonymous with the former type of happiness where equality triumphs over fairness and where shallow gestures and symbolism is emphasised over challenge, learning and the intolerance of poor attitude and behaviour.

The current approach to engagement fails to understand the mindset and needs of high performers and since high performance was the original drive behind engagement, no wonder it’s in a cul-de-sac of its own making.

If engagement carries on this way, then it will be seen as an initiative that fails to engage the very people it needs as sponsors and advocates and will have no credibility with high performers. The Olympic sports in which we work are often very different to each other, though they do have one thing in common – there’s not an engagement survey in sight. Funnily enough, these organisations seem to be populated by people who are pretty engaged. Go figure.

6. It requires structural change, not symbolism

In most organisations, engagement is impacted most heavily in three key rhythms and rituals that most organisations perform every year – Goal Setting, Performance Reviewing and Reward & Recognition.

Organisations that understand how potentially powerful these rituals are – either powerfully good or powerfully terrible – spend a great deal of time and energy in making sure the spirit and skills in the organisation are transformed so that they support motivation towards organisational purpose and meaning.

It’s hard work and it takes effort, discipline and practice. It’s a lot easier to leave these things unaddressed and have company events, birthday cards and engagement surveys instead. These things might make leaders feel they are doing something, though that something is not meaningful and it naturally follows that engagement is seen as symbolic.

There are 3 things worth understanding about symbolism and structural change:

  • structural change does not need symbolism
  • for symbolism to be meaningful, it needs structural change
  • symbolism without structural change is a con carried out by those who don’t actually want anything to change or who can’t be arsed to put the effort in.

So in case I haven’t been clear here, I’m saying that symbolic engagement activities without structural change is either lazy, well-intentioned though ill-informed, or just cynical.

7. It’s stuck in a narrative of work-life balance bollocks

I think I might scream if I hear another engagement activist talk about work-life balance. That very premise undermines what engagement should be achieving. This silent narrative that says “work is an inherently crap thing and life is inherently a good thing, so we must make sure that we balance the bad thing with the good thing.”

Hello. Work – for those of us fortunate to have it – is part of life and we don’t stop living when we’re at work. By buying into this narrative of two separable concepts where one has to be balanced against the other is disrespectful of work and that seems a little odd given what we’re looking to do here. Seeing engagement as the thing that will help make work feel less shit is a deficit model that does no-one any good.

8. Leaders are given the primary responsibility for “fixing” employee engagement

Of course leaders have a massive role to play here. They are highly influential in creating the best possible conditions for performance and for ensuring employees are treated like they are alive and not carbon-based units of production. Though in 15 years, I think I’ve only come across 1 example where those people who filled out the questionnaire were presented back with their scores and then worked in groups to see what they could do to improve their own engagement. In the overwhelming majority of cases, leaders wait with apprehension to be presented with the scores of their teams, so that they can make things better. Removing any sense that employees should share responsibility for improving their engagement is unhelpful and diminishes that vital sense of control.

So what?

In March of this year at the European EEA summit, I called for a system upgrade to Engagement 2.0, aimed at addressing these issues. If they are not addressed, a concept that can be a powerful force for good will disappear up its own arse in a sea of irrelevance. If it doesn’t upgrade itself then it risks becoming obsolete and we will have failed the very people we should be helping.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We just need a self-imposed system upgrade, led by people with passion, expertise, a desire to learn and a clear sense of mission. You know, engaged people.

Imagine what we could do if we re-owned engagement and used the work done so far as a platform for the future. What would happen if everyone in an organisation took collective responsibility for putting the “and” into performance, engagement and results? Imagine a world where work truly becomes a force for good.