Preventing Employee Engagement’s Premature Death

Preventing Employee Engagement’s Premature Death

"The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." - Mark Twain

Engagement offers such promise. Studies suggest engagement will benefit the organization’s profit, performance, and productivity while also enriching employee wellbeing, vitality, and safety (Engage For Success, Nail the Evidence Report). You would think we would do everything in our power to ensure we get it right but sometimes it seems we either don’t get it or we get it so wrong.

We are in danger of killing employee engagement with strategies and tactics that fail to achieve results and cause senior leadership to not only question the benefit of engagement but wonder if it should be abandoned all together. Many employees have moved from ignorance of employee engagement to skepticism of the claims to entrenched cynicism of what seems like another in the long list of management fads.

I worked with one large 5000-person organization that staked a claim on engagement by setting a strategic goal of increasing employee engagement by 15% in two years. They had to abandon their strategy just two years later when they ran into resistance from various sections and pockets of the organization.

Here are some of the engagement killers:

We use levers and drivers, badly termed mechanical metaphors, to refer to the human act of engagement.

We don’t offer a compelling invitation to engagement. We must stop thinking of improving engagement as something we do for employees and realize it is something we do with employees.

We kill engagement when we refer to employees as them.

We don’t do a good enough job of demonstrating the benefits of greater engagement to our employees; from wellbeing and happiness to meaningful contribution and increased voice within the organization. Employees end up believing that employee engagement is a bunch of HR and management jargon manipulatively designed to get them to just work harder.

We continue to use copious amounts of anonymous survey questions that suggest to employees that they can’t trust us, we don’t know what is going on, and that we don’t want to know who they are. A lot of money goes into engagement assessment when that money may be better invested in engagement improvement.

We fail to focus our engagement efforts on specific and meaningful results and settle for some global employee feel-good score to appease senior leadership.

What we fail to manage are the various social elements of engagement. Even our founder William Kahn, who got the ball rolling with his study of personal engagement 25 years ago, has re-focused on the relationship elements of engagement. He declared relationships as the nervous system of organizations and emphasized how “engagement thrives in the context of some relationships and wilts in others.” (William A. Kahn & Emily D Heaphy, Relational contexts of personal engagement at work in the textbook, Employee Engagement in Theory and Practice, p. 82)

Here are 5 suggestions to enliven engagement

  1. Stop thinking about engagement as an abstract, large scale program and start acting on daily behaviors that increase engagement for yourself and others. Fuse engagement into performance and wellbeing and recognize that engagement is crucial to how we work, manage, and lead in 2016.
  2. Search for simplicity and recognize that just because something is simple does not mean it is easy, and get to work on making the simple easier. Determine and develop triggers and structures to make engaging behaviors the default action of everyone at work.
  3. Ensure employees realize they are personally responsible for their own engagement. If they complete a survey, give them their results so that can see what they can change. In addition, when you let people know they are responsible for something and you hold them accountable for improvement, you must also provide education so that they know what they can do.
  4. Don’t minimize the fear surrounding work and engagement. The fraternal twin of engagement is safety and the parent of both is trust. Embed your engagement work in safety and trust to diminish fear and create a healthy workplace where people can thrive and flourish and look forward to Monday as much as they look forward to Friday.
  5. My last item is a bit of a personal confession. I have been very critical of people advocating engagement work as being fun, pizza parties, and social gatherings. Just because this is not the essence of engagement we still need to infuse enjoyment, playfulness, and fun into our workplace to help rejuvenate and recharge ourselves while building more robust relationships. So pass the pizza slice and ice cream cone as we connect and recharge with each other and have the energy for our good work done well with others every day.

Long live engagement, and engage along with me, because the best is yet to be.

Tags:  For Managers


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