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Is Employee Engagement Broken?

dataism employee engagement empowered employee leadership personal responsibility

I’m an outsider with a question: There are a lot of people unhappy at work and there are a lot of businesses unhappy that their people are unhappy and there are other businesses who come in to make everyone happy again but nothing has changed for 15 years. Why?

I started reading. Articles and books. Listening to podcasts. Binging on TED videos. I was confused by acronyms I didn’t understand. (It turns out it’s not just the military that suffers from O.R.O.A - Over Reliance On Acronyms). I gulped every time I read the intimidating bio of another expert author. Who was I to question their argument? The deeper I looked, the longer the words became, the more over-articulated the arguments were.

This George Orwell quote - from his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language - sprang to mind.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” 

But sometimes it takes an outsider to see what is impossible to see from the inside. As the saying goes … you’ve got to get outside the jar to be able to read the label.

I reckon if the Martians were to look at the employee engagement business they’d probably come up with something similar.

What Is An Engaged Employee And Why Should We Care?

An engaged employee is someone who actually wants to be at work. They like being at work. They get that a positive attitude about work benefits themselves and benefits the business they work for. The more of these type of employees a company has, the more likely they are to outperform a company that has less of these type of employees.

What Is The Difference Between Employee Engagement, Employee Experience, Employee Satisfaction, Employee Happiness

Not much. To a business owner who wants their employees to lift their game a bit, they’re all pretty much interchangeable. To the firms offering consulting the differences are huge. ‘No wonder you haven’t been seeing the expected increases in your employee's attitude, you’ve been measuring the engagement when you should be measuring satisfaction.’

Why Did Engaging Our Employees Become An Imperative All Of A Sudden?

With the new millennium came fads. Wristbands for a Cause, Flash Mobs, Tamagotchis, Employee Engagement. To be fair it is not a fad, but it certainly feels like one at times, so I’m keeping the comparison.

A fad, trend or craze is any form of collective behaviour that develops within a culture in which a group of people enthusiastically follows an impulse for a finite period, so says Wikipedia.

Employee Engagement’s sudden arrival happened when intergenerational taunts by experts from the Baby Boomer generation (a rough guess going by the photos in their bio box at the end of their articles) were directed at the younger workers. Those Millennials, they said, are too easily distracted. They are disengaging themselves. Being slightly attached to a smartphone myself, there’s an ounce of truth in that I’m sure.

The big consulting companies got whiff of this and whipped up a storm, proclaiming the sky was about to fall in. 

Hands down the out-and-out muck-raking champion is Gallup, an American polling and global performance-management consulting company. (Great business model: they are the first to tell you what the problem is and they already have the solution when they tell you. Makes me think of what Dad used to say: never ask a barber if you need a haircut).

What Was The Solution To Engaging Employees?

Gallup began hollering Employee Engagement Crisis from the rooftops over a decade ago. An entire industry sprang up in response. Most solutions require you to purchase software so you can measure and report. Add in a team of consultants. Companies spent billions on these elixirs and tonics. You’d think the ailing patient would return with a suntan and the whitest of smiles. Not so. 

Every year Gallup reports yearly that the disengagement figures have stagnated, yet again, for the past fifteen years. The workforce is stuck in a rut. When you follow the links to the services they recommended you discover they are offering the same set of solutions that apparently did little to improve things in the previous years.

How Real Is Employee Disengagement?

Have we had ‘a Listerine’ done on us? 

Listerine mouthwash is one of the marketing success stories of all time. For about forty years Listerine plodded along as a ho-hum product for those with bad breath. Behind closed doors, the manufacturers hatched a scheme to employ an unwitting medical profession to rebadge halitosis from a bothersome personal imperfection into an embarrassing medical condition that urgently required treatment. Treatment that—conveniently—the company wanted to sell.  

Is employee disengagement the productivity-sapping thorn-in-the-side of business that it is made out to be? As Drew Carey quipped … “Oh, you hate your job? Why didn't you say so? There's a support group for that. It's called everybody, and they meet at the bar."

It is fair to pose this question given that well-credentialed experts have not been able to move the needle on this problem in over a decade, yet their solution is to ask you to throw more money at it.

Author Jacob Morgan points out “Organizations are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on employee engagement programs, yet their scores on engagement surveys remain abysmally low. How is that possible? Because most initiatives amount to an adrenaline shot. A perk is introduced to boost scores, but over time the effect wears off and scores go back down. Another perk is introduced, and scores go back up — and then they fall again….”. 

Author Rodd Wagner says reports of the death of employee commitment has been greatly exaggerated, that there is no crisis. 

“Eager to sell their services, the engagementologists employ hyperbole, statistical sleights of hand and hiding behind trade secrets to make assertions as credible as the Milk Board announcing a calcium crisis”. Nice analogy.

Clearly, there is a relationship between happy/satisfied/engaged/empowered employees and the profits of a company and that it is desirable for both employee and employer. 

Jack Welch, former CEO General Electric said: “There are only three measures that tell you nearly everything you need to know about your organisation’s overall performance: employee engagement, customer satisfaction and cash flow.”

Just how soured is that relationship is very unclear?

Are There Companies That Have Nailed Employee Engagement?

Yes. I think. Apple, Southwest Airlines, General Electric, Microsoft, LinkedIn. But these successes are reported by the companies that produce the reporting software that lets these companies proclaim what wonderful workforces they have. I haven’t found independent reporting for this yet. The same standout company names do pop up over and over. Why is this? I don’t know but I like what Bill Fotsch and John Case argue…

The reason companies so often miss the boat on engagement is that it isn’t and can never be an add-on. Either the business operates in such a way as to engage employees or it doesn’t.”

Is There A Missing Piece Of The Employee Engagement Puzzle?

My year of researching employee engagement raised a new question. Why is so little written about the role of personal responsibility in this? Surely this a shared responsibility?

Author Timothy R. Clark asked this very question in his 2012 book The Employee Engagement Mindset. He found that highly engaged employees, “take primary responsibility for their careers, their success and their fulfilment. They own their own engagement. They are the driving forces.”

I have come to understand that employees accepting personal responsibility is such a critical piece of this puzzle and I think companies should pause spending on employee engagement programs until we call this out as the BIG obstacle that it is. If we are to ever have a hope of getting the engaged workforce that everyone hopes for, all of us have to own up and accept that this is OUR problem.

Until we do, you’ll have as much luck getting employees engaged as pushing a piece of string. 

Ever Tried To Push A Piece Of String?

You can’t push a piece of string. Try as hard you like it’s going nowhere because there’s no fibre, there’s no spine. It’s limp.

Just like the modern day workforce is limp with disillusionment. Globally people feel deflated at work. There’s a mismatch between their expectations and what jobs are providing.

Are We Looking In The Wrong Places For Answers To Our Problems 

Here are about ten thousand years of history in twenty seconds.

For Millenia we looked to THEISM - God please show me a sign, tell me the way

Four hundred years ago we turned to HUMANISM - the renaissance man was born. We turned to science and intellect to solve our problems. 

We are now entering the age of DATAISM - we have a tidal wave of data and the quantum computers fast enough to process it. Data will help us solve big problems: climate, traffic, medical breakthroughs.

Data though is a double-edged sword.


Data Is Quietly Stealing Away Our Courage 

Courage is our inner strength to solve problems on our own

The story of courage was once passed down father to son, mothers to daughters, priest to the congregation, uncles to the village.

Here we are in the global village but where are the wise storytellers? They have been replaced 24/7 by a commercial message designed to discourage us from taking personal responsibility.

In The Midst Of The Great Discouragement. 

The Great Discouragement is how I term media platforms using our data, that we freely offer up, and using it like the siren’s song to lure us. This is not a conspiracy, it’s just business. Unhappy people spend more in an attempt to make themselves happy. But this is affecting us and businesses in ways we are not realising. 

  • She doesn't love you; buy a bigger ring. 
  • Overweight; take this pill. 
  • Injured; someone's gotta pay for that. 
  • Instant Gratification - I want it now!
  • Our sense of entitlement - take a sickie

External Solutions Will Fix Our Problems

The message is loud and clear: there's an external solution for our internal problems.

Guess what, we don’t leave this attitude at home, we bring it to work where we spend sixty percent of our waking hours. What do you reckon? Could this influence how we respond to our problems at work? 

You want me engaged? Sure! You’re the boss, you come up with the solution. Hop to it.

and here’s the rub

You Cannot Outspend FAMGA

It truly is your problem because these big platforms will outspend you until the cows come home. FAMGA: (Facebook Apple Microsoft Google Amazon) is worth over 3 trillion dollars. You can’t compete with them and they’re not going away.

What to do?

It’s time to stop slapping on the gloss coats without doing the sanding and the undercoating first. Because when we skip the undercoating we come back in a few years and it’s all cracked and peeled and we have to start again.

But There Is A $5 Solution To A Billion Dollar Problem

My $5 solution is the undercoat to the disengaged employee problem. Give every employee $5 and send them off to the dollar store to buy a cheap mirror. Get them to look into it and ask themselves does my job suck or could it be me? Until we collectively move back to accepting personal responsibility, to saying that we are part of the problem, until employees reach up and meet management who are reaching down and meet them halfway, until we do that, this employee engagement thing is dead in the water.

Remember the string, It’s going to take time until that string is strong enough for you to push BUT in the meantime, you can lead them out of this. 

People Are Waiting To Be Led Out Of This

I’m interested in working with leaders who want to lead, who want to leave a legacy of finding a better way. We need a different way.

I’d love to be able to come into your organisation to help you reinstate personal responsibility as a core value. Your organisational push will be met with foundational pull. When this is in place, then un-pause your spending on employee engagement programs and move side by side with your employees to increased productivity and healthier profits.

Change you or change the world. Which is easier?

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