six myths of employee engagement

Slipshod assistance, foolish inattention, dowdy indifference, and half-hearted work seem the rule; and no man succeeds, unless by hook or crook or threat he forces or bribes other men to assist him.” ~ Elbert Hubbard, A Message to Garcia, 1899

Much gets said about employee engagement and little changes. Headlines shout that only 30% of employees are engaged and then try to connect that number to the economy, terrorism, climate change, Millennials, or whatever the fear of the moment is. Except that engagement, as measured by Gallup, has held very steady between 26% and 30% since they started measuring it in 2000 (Gallup). Lots of concern and money thrown at the issue and there’s very little change.

Maybe part of the problem is all the myth and hype that’s built up around it. As I look around, there are six prevalent engagement myths I routinely come across (though surely there are more).

Myth 1: Everyone knows the definition of engagement. There seem to be as many definitions as people discussing engagement and trying to find the best one is a challenge. For example, there is a 2006 SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) publication titled “Employee Engagement and Commitment” that includes an entire page of definitions from 10 different companies. Every vendor seems to use a different definition and the average person usually thinks of engagement as synonymous with happiness, fulfillment, or job satisfaction. Some definitions are very academic, but I like simple. For me, the most useful definitions focus on a person’s discretionary effort and my own personal definition of engagement is “giving a damn”. It lacks nuance and precision but it’s stone simple and immediately understandable.

Myth 2: Engagement is about making everyone happy. Although I’m all for everyone being happy, there seems to be – at best – a loose connection between engagement and happiness. I suspect engaged people tend to be happier on the whole because they feel like their efforts matter, but I’m very skeptical of the suggestion that happiness creates engagement. People who give a damn about doing their jobs well are often irritated with anything that prevents them from being at their best. They’re mad because they care and that’s very different than being happily indifferent.

Myth 3: Work ethic is dead (kids these days). There are a lot of fingers being pointed at the Millennial generation and a lot of talk about how different they are. It’s easy to talk about how things were when we were young and lament the death of the old fashioned work ethic. Consider the possibility that the “old fashioned” work ethic we romanticize and get all misty-eyed nostalgic over never existed. For a bit of perspective, read A Message to Garcia, written in 1899 to see what the author thought of the work ethic back then (spoiler: it was pretty bad). Or just think about it this way: if we have a five generation workforce and 70% of the workforce is disengaged and that holds steady over time since before Gen Y was a strong presence in the workforce, it can’t be about generation.

Myth 4: $$$ = Engagement. I hear managers complain that they can’t motivate or get their employees engaged because they don’t control wages. It does seem like increasing pay would increase engagement, but the research of Fredrick Herzberg and others suggests otherwise. Money creates lots of things but it doesn’t seem to cause people to give a damn over the long haul. Yes, being underpaid is demotivating and disengagning, but being overpaid doesn’t fuel superengagment.

Consider yourself as an example. I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this post you’re a pretty engaged person and you care about the results you’re creating in your life and at your job. Do you give your all right now? Do you do an honest day’s work? Are you consistently considered a high performer? (Yes!) If your company doubled your pay could you create double the results you do now? Would you do twice as honest of a day’s work? Would you give your all twice as much? No, it’s not possible.

Flip this around and think about that actively disengaged toxic co-worker dragging the team down (you know who I’m talking about). Would paying them more change their personality, work ethic, or the amount they cared about the results they are creating? Exactly. [NOTE: I’m not saying people shouldn’t be paid more, I’m saying that increasing wages above market rate won’t magically cure disengagement.]

Myth 5: Engagement is a survey, program, or initiative. Lots of times HR or management focuses on measuring engagement with surveys or doing a program to increase engagement. That’s fine as long as everyone remembers that engagement is NOT a number from a survey and doing a program doesn’t necessarily equal engaged employees.

Engagement isn’t posters, slogans, training, or perks.  All those things have their place but all the dry cleaning, free soda, and foosball tables in the world won’t make people care more about their jobs. And, hopefully it’s not a surprise, but different people are, well, different. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to engagement. Oh, and people sometimes put their happy face on when taking surveys and don’t respond with their true thoughts and feelings (shocker!).

MYTH 6: Engagement is only an HR issue. This ties back to the myth that engagement is a survey or program. Disengagement is branded a “people problem” and handed to HR as though engagement is a thing that is separate from the business.  Engagement is not something that can be delegated to a specific department. It’s not something we can purchase. Engagement is not separate from the business and it’s not separate from the people. Business gets done for, through, and by people so engagement is a BUSINESS issue through and through. People touch every aspect of business so people problems affect business results.

What if the whole idea of engagement is simply a well-meaning red herring? What if it’s not the real problem at all? What if it’s an indication of something bigger and we’ve been treating symptoms rather than the real issue?

Stay tuned for more on this. Next time we’ll look at some things we can do and something that might be more useful to focus on than engagement. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience in the comments.

[NOTE: this post is based on part of my presentation What if Employee Engagement Actually Mattered?]

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7 comments

  1. I have a sneaking suspicion that, given engagement numbers have held so steady for so long, a large number of people would simply prefer not to have to work and will therefore never be “engaged”. They see it as a necessary evil, to be gotten out of the way as quickly and painlessly as possible.

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    1. Simon, you raise an important issue. What if we humans are, for whatever reason, simply wired in those proportions and we’ll never engage the disengaged? I suppose that means selection becomes even more important. Or what if it’s not our wiring, but widescale learned helplessness? Or what if it is truly an issue of those at the engaged end of the scale not being able to understand the perspective of the disengaged and inventing solutions to problems that don’t exist? So many good questions.

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  2. I love the dialogue, I have often wondered why the numbers stay fixed as well. All of the suggestions above seem possible. What I find the most troubling is that I beleive most people begin their jobs excited and wanting to contribute and to make a difference in their profession, yet (and I personally attribute this to the “company dynamics and poor communication”) they feel beat down and become disengaged/frustrated. Be it their opinion and skills are not valued or utilized, they have unsupportive management. Their leadership lacks integrity and accountability, and/or has no clear strategy/plan. Their once a year performance appraisal showing them as average, no matter how many times we do our best to define C as great, it “means you are doing your job acceptably”, isn’t motivating, etc. and they throw their hands up and become an average employee. Perhaps as happens so often, the company keeps telling employees that they are our best assets, yet their actions don’t support this. I also wonder if some 10%, the “trouble makers”, always complaining, chatting too much, trying to work the system, it’s not my job types will likely always be there. We just have to “manage” them. Then at least another 20% likely fit into the necessary evil category described above, where I do just about enough to get my job done. So maybe we can only impact 30 to 50% of the folks and it’s OK to have folks who simply come in and do their jobs. If they were all directors and creative types, that wouldn’t work either.

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    1. Appreciate the thoughts, Tracy. You bring lots of good ideas to the discussion. I fret about all the human potential going to waste simply from people being disconnected from their results. Whether they are CEO, a fast climbing high potential, or someone who is completely happy with where they are with no desire to go further in the org, it makes such a difference when people feel a connection to their work and feel like their contribution matters.

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