Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Engaged in what? So what?

Last week I was invited to present to a group of HR executives on the topic of employee engagement. I started out with a picture of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. I asked the audience to remember a time when they "believed" and in particular in Santa and/or our friend the Tooth Fairy. Then I asked for stories about what happened when they learned there was no Santa Claus. The stories were, as you might guess, great. People were angry, sad, and they projected those negative feelings toward the people who sold them on the story.

So ... we talked about employee engagement. Why? I linked employee engagement to Santa Claus because it's being hailed in many cases as a magic wand to make companies better. Don't get me wrong; I truly believe and know by reviewing the data that employees are the key to long-term company success. However, employee engagement as many people "envision" it in their minds is probably not it. And the morale of the story is that when our senior executives realize all the money spent on employee engagement just may not lead to the performance outcomes they desire, whoever sold them on employee engagement is going to be the target of that negative projection.

Telling a mystical story when people are expecting facts comes at a price.

However, I remember learning about Santa Claus. And frankly, I was a bit relieved. When we were kids, we did not have a fireplace, so Santa coming down the chimney really made no sense. Then there were these kids down the street who always got into trouble, and they always got better presents than we did. So it seemed "right" but disappointing that there was no Santa.

The same thing happens with employee engagement. If you think about it carefully, you know that those survey questions you're tracking look a lot like the employee satisfaction questions. Do we really think that raising these survey questions is going to magically make everything better for all companies and all employees everywhere? If that were the case, why is the economy taking so long to recover?

The reality is employee engagement is not magic. Employee engagement surveys are probably doing more good than harm, but increasing survey scores on engagement does not improve performance for everyone. There is a thing called an “interaction effect” which we find in the research. It shows that there are “conditions under which” some employees will experience lower performance when their engagement goes up (kinda like the not so good kids getting better presents). That’s because performance is not in the engagement work being done to date (in most cases), and that’s where we think the field needs to go.

Also, maybe it’s time to start being honest with ourselves and admit employee engagement is an industry or a field of study – not a construct. If it were a clear construct, at least there would be some agreement on what it is, and there is no consensus to date on the “thing” that is employee engagement.

I vote to move on to questions #2 and #3. They are:

1. Engaged in what?
2. So what?

Focus on the performance in which you want employees engaged in and then move backwards. To do this, we have been using models from physics, looking at energy and momentum. What we want are employees moving forward vs. going backwards or standing still and then when moving forward, with a high sense of urgency, make sure their efforts are pointed in the direction needed to drive strategy.

Then please address the so what question. For employees, so what? What do they get in return?

There are a number of simple ways to move this work forward in your organizations. If you want to learn more, contact me. If you have your own stories, share them.