Thursday, December 10, 2009

The end of employee engagement

It's been many years since we in the HR world started talking about employee engagement. And since that time the following has happened (or not happened):

1. We have no agreement on what engagement is.

2. Many people refer to their employee engagement survey questions when defining engagement.

3. It has become one of HR's most successful fads, with everyone and everybody using it to describe what they do (myself included, albeit I was dragged along unwillingly).

4. We are all very comfortable having no agreement with what it is.

5. No one has an answer to the "engaged in what" question. Think about it for a minute, your employees could be engaged in baking cookies all day; that is probably only good if you are in the business of baking cookies. What about the rest of us?

6. Did you know that there are examples of companies winning the most engaged company awards and then going into bankruptcy a few days later? Is that ok?

7. Did you know that there are conditions under which raising employee survey engagement scores actually leads to lower employee performance? Here's how that works. Manager X has a bonus tied to the engagement survey scores. Manager X gets a low score on a question that leads the manager to take all his/her employees out for fun; make sure they like each other; they like their jobs. Employees start having a great time at work. Employee engagement scores go up; performance goes down.

8. When you don't know what something is (employee engagement) and you spend lots of money on it, and you do not have a calculated return on the investment, some day some other executive will come after your budget. When times get tough, your budget goes away.

9. Employees jump for joy that the employee engagement initiative went away; now they can do their jobs.

10. Firm performance improves because HR is finally done pestering everyone about employee engagement.

Is there a better way? Yes.


Ed Lawler said...

I agree. It is not actionable. The most it tells you is that action may be needed. It's like taking someone's temperature! I don't see it going away quickly - it has become too big an industry.

Unknown said...

Engagement can go up, as you suggest, by doing short term "distraction" activities that lower productivity. You can also permanently increase engagement by reducing job responsibilities. The most sure route to higher engagement leads to business results in the red.

At best, "engagement" is like taking the temperature of a patient. If it's not normal, that tells you that something is causing the problem. But you need deeper diagnosis before taking action. A doctor would never assign medicine based solely on a patient's temperature. Managers and HR should never take action to directly address engagement scores. Instead, they should use engagement scores to launch an investigation of potential root causes (work design; org design; job mismatches; poor leadership; etc.)

Alec Levenson
Center for Effective Organizations
University of Southern California

Ed Lawler said...

Our research at the Center for Effective Organizations shows you need to focus on organization design and management practices in order to obtain data that indicate which changes should be made.

David Zinger said...


I appreciated your comments and rant about employee engagement.

I think the engaged in what is a very important question. I shudder to think of employee engagement as a simple feel good survey score that results in a lot of hot chocolate chip cookies (of course I like hot chocolate chip cookies but does that align with the results the organization is working to achieve?

One thing that irks me is the awarding of most engaged company often seems to be predicated upon being a client of a certain consultancy. Of course, business management literature is full of the methods or characteristics of great companies only to see them not so great in no time at all.

I also would suggest there are better ways, not just one way, and at the heart of engagement is results, strategy, roles, and performance. It is key that we engage in these along with social and individual factors because engagement if it is to sustain must be more than a happy dance and good cookies.


Derek Irvine said...

Agreed, David. "Engagement" is meaningless if, as Theresa puts it, the goal is "employees having fun at work." That's simply not the point of engagement. As I've said time and again, the point is to create a work environment in which employees WANT to engage. While "fun" might be an element of that, a far more critical component is "meaning" -- making it quite clear to employees why their efforts matter and how they contribute to achieving the company's larger, strategic objectives.

And engagement is not a new "fad." Sure, it's getting a lot of coverage lately (back to David's comment about the various consultancies selling "engagement"), but the desire to create engaging workplaces is more than 100 years old.

Change your focus, and you can change your workplace.

Theresa M. Welbourne said...

Thanks for all of your feedback. I continue to think that the lack of definition and lack of focusing engagement on specific behaviors that drive performance (and performance that is needed today; this is not generic)means the 'fad' of employee engagement will lead to less than desirable measurable results.

Derek Irvine said...

Theresa, you're right. You must focus on reinforcing specific behaviors. That's why we strongly advocate bringing your company values to life in the everyday tasks of all employees by using strategic recognition to frequently recognize those who demonstrate the company values in achievement of your strategic objectives. Done properly, you can track where, how and how often recognition is occurring, using the results to intervene where potentially necessary with additional training in lagging areas. More on this here:

Unknown said...

The term "engagement" regarding work brings to me two images.

The first is the story told in Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. He tells about the factory manager who creates a competitive spirit between shifts in a steel foundry by chalking the number of steel pours on the floor where all the employees can see it. Knowing the performance of their peers, the foundry crews focus on their performance and are "engaged" in that effort.

I'm also reminded of "flow" in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. What struck me is his description of the "flight of time" that occurred with students when they were doing homework. You might think that homework would evoke pain and annoyance. Instead, student were "engaged" and made happier by their experience with the homework.

Perhaps you can find a way to define "engagement" using these views of the work experience.

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