Quit Worrying About Employee Engagement

It’s a Saturday.  Who reads HR blogs on Saturday?

The more important question to ask is “who has two thumbs and WRITES posts for Saturday?”  This guy.

Yup.  It’s Saturday and I’m up early because I didn’t plan my week well and didn't get this done on Thursday, or Friday.  My bad.  Maybe your good?  But that is the story of engagement.  I’m engaged here at FOT – I like writing for this tribe.  That’s why I’m up at 6:00 am on Saturday writing.

I am driven to write, and to hopefully write well because of this tribe.  They keep me on my toes.  And the system and tools we use to manage this group of “volunteers” allows me to get up on a Saturday and bang out 500 words and worry whether they will live up to the standards my tribe has adopted.  (Fingers crossed.)

I decided to be engaged here and the process we use allows me to wait until the last minute and put this post up.  In other words… FOT provides the tools and the processes needed to get a Saturday post up and I get it done.

No incentive program.  No engagement study.  No special perks (really – we don’t even have a foosball table or in-house day care.)

Worry About the Tools

I started thinking about all the posts and studies talking about how to drive greater employee engagement and it struck me that we should worry less about engagement and worry more about “enablement.”

Yeah… screw the employees.  Don’t worry about their self-esteem.  Don’t worry about their engagement scores.  Don’t ask them if they feel like they “belong.”

Instead… ask them…

  • Can you get your job done up to YOUR standards?
  • What stops you from being great?
  • Who stops you from being great?
  • What needs to change to make sure you can work when, how an

    d with who you want to work with?

  • Are you doing work that fits your skills (not what I think they are but what you think they are?)

These are questions about structure, process and systems.  They aren’t touchy-feely questions that want to know about “feelings” or whether I feel “appreciated” at work.  Don’t get me wrong – feeling good about work is important.  But first I think you need to make sure you have the foundation in place to ALLOW people to do the things that make you want to recognize them.

Too often I see people talking about engagement as if it is something you can create with gift cards and conversations.  You can simulate it with those tools.  But you can’t really create it without first giving the employees the ability to actually DO the work that makes them engaged.

Engagement cannot be “given” – it must be earned.  It has to be something the company allows to happen and the employee does.

To me engagement is more about removing barriers than it is about creating work-arounds.

Don’t just layer in recognition if you have system that prevents people from say… posting their blog on the day it’s due.  Sure – I might get an atta-boy for getting it done on Thursday.  But I’d much rather have a process in place that allows me to get up on Saturday and do it when the muse strikes me (or the Starbucks.)  A process that allows me to do the work I like and am good at.

Forget the employees (for now.)

Focus on the stuff that helps employees be great.

Focus on the how – not the who – or the how much.


FOT Background Check

Paul Hebert
Paul Hebert is the Senior Director of Solutions Architecture at Creative Group Inc and a writer, speaker and consultant. Paul focuses on influencing behaviors and driving business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. Over the course of his career, Paul has worked closely with clients to design influence, marketing, motivation, incentive, loyalty, recognition and reward programs to increase effectiveness and reduce costs. Paul is a recognized authority on incentives and performance motivation. Want to know what’s going to motivate your people to perform at their best and impact the bottom line? Want to know whether your service award program really means anything at all? Curious what psychological principles drive sales behavior? Paul’s your guy… unless you fervently bow down to Maslow. Check out his personal blog at "What Is Paul Thinking?" when you're tired of his FOT rants.


  1. Kathy Sierra says:

    Yes yes yes! Thanks so much for saying this. While I appreciate that the desire for “better engagement” is often well-intentioned (though typically it is all about increasing productivity and quality WITHOUT having to increase pay or job conditions), attempts to *buiild* engagement can so often have the counter-intuitively OPPOSITE effect. If we don’t look deeply at what engagement actually *means* in our context, then we end up increasing engagement *in the wrong things*. Building engagement through externally-regulated mechanisms, whether extrinsic rewards or even things like “status”, we can indeed increase engagement… over the wrong thing. After all, it’s ridiculously easy to build engagement if you put slot machines in your office… you’d have quite enthusiastic “engaged” “players”. The real problem is when we try to build engagement with the same psychological principles upon which slot machines are based (operant conditioning) and yet convince ourselves that it’s something entirely different.

    The only way to build true engagement is to use the psychology of motivation.. And that requires enabling and building competency, through tools and appropriate, responsive, useful feedback and intrinsically pleasurable challenges and matching skills/knowledge improvement. But that is SO much more difficult, especially when companies are springing up (gamification, looking at you) with labels like, “Engagement Engine”, “Engagement Platform” , etc. all promising to send engagement “through the roof” with a plug and play API.

    Sorry for the rant; you pushed a button. But again, thank-you!

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Thanks Kathy for being awake and up on Saturday to read this. I agree that we need to focus a bit more on the core elements of what really get’s people moving and not just on the window dressing. I will say that once you get that nailed however, some of the stuff like gamification can help – but that’s the icing not the cake IMO..

  2. Bruce Kestelman says:

    Hi Paul,

    I’m still wondering about the part that the Starbucks played in your blog? Was it about engagement or about enablement?

    Anyway, I think you make a good point, yet I think you miss the point by over emphasizing one element in the equation.

    It really takes both a culture of employee engagement and a supportive work culture to make it work, that is, to drive discretionary effort leading to organization effectiveness.

    Some folks I’ve learned from think about employee engagement as potential energy. That is, it is a necessary ingredient for success, but not sufficient. It is not until employee engagement is combined with a supportive work culture that you get combustion.

    It may be that recently there has been way too much focus on the magic that is employee engagement. And, all too often there is the cynicism that follows the failure of employee engagement efforts. My suggestion is, don’t throw out the value of employee engagement by focusing disproportionately on the value of a supportive work culture. It takes both.

    Keep on blogging (and drinking Starbucks).


    • Paul Hebert says:

      Great question on the Starbucks Bruce… not sure – maybe a little of both. Just like engagement. I agree it takes a supportive work culture but, like most of us working folks – you may only be able to fight on one front at a time and I’m just suggesting that we look at the one that gives people the ability to get their job done. No amount of support is going to help if everyday you’re stymied at every turn to actually accomplish something. Progress in a project has been proven to be huge motivation boost and an engagement key. I think it is better to get the process and system in place to get work done – then work on the support mechanisms.

  3. KD says:

    Paul –

    Like the thoughts here – I’ve always liked discretionary effort as a bellweather of engagement. With your tools take, could it be that tools that allow that discretionary effort to interact with others and be recognized might be a key to engagement?


    • Paul Hebert says:

      KD – anything that helps people get their job done faster, better would be included on my list. Whether they allow collaboration or not. If the job I have requires collaboration then absolutely. I also think recognition is key to knowing that the work you are doing is valid and appreciated. But… I’d worry more about making sure the tools are there to get the work done first – then worry about whether I have tools to recognize the work. One has to happen before the other IMO.

  4. Brian Deming says:

    Paul – Great post! A great deal of talk, but one of the few that puts something actionable down in writing. If 6am Saturday engagement is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

    Disclaimer – I am stealing your five questions for a current work project

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Glad to help – and glad you were up to read it! I’d be interested to see what comes out of your project. What we think is a problem rarely is…. and what it is, is usually a surprise.

  5. Kes Thygesen says:

    Very to the point, Paul. I’d like to add to your discussion though and suggest that perhaps this point of view on employee engagement should be the first step. Instead of skipping ahead to the incentives, prizes, and conversations you mentioned, employers should get a grip on what’s going on in their business with their employees. They should make sure the work they provide is valuable, clear, and transparent to employers. If you have the questions you mentioned ironed out and completed but engagement and morale is still low, then let’s move on to tools, research, and tactics. What do you think?

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Yeah – a little link bait with the title – I do think there is a place for all the recognition and rewards – just not first place. I am in total agreement that in most cases the first thing you do is make sure people can do a job, have the tools to do a job and know what that job is, and the impact/context to the larger picture. Get the basics done and then look at other ways to ENHANCE that. No amount of reward or recognition is going to make up for a lack of basic support. Like giving starving people salt and pepper vs. a meal.

  6. Lizzie says:

    Paul — you know I don’t work in HR or any kind of management role. I can say from the employee’s perspective that it gets a little old to hear people in veryyy structured companies talking about “how to get employees more engaged” when it seems so easy. Somehow The Starr Conspiracy got it right — and I can see objectively and personally it’s because just about everyone feels treated like people and sees great things happen when they get their shit done.

    I think the main difference in where the conversation turns sour is when the goal is to increase employee engagement because they want that golden discretionary effort … they want to milk the cow a little longer, so they have to make it a happy cow, or some other analogy that works better.

    That’s when people start to feel overcooked and leathery (if we’re still talking about cows) and would rather give their discretionary effort to a hobo than the organization.

    You know? Great post.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      I hear ya… some places don’t think of this as a “human” thing but a “financial” thing. Do the human right and the financial will follow. How novel, eh?

  7. Hi Paul – I’m not sure that I buy that the tools and processes in place is soley or maybe a prerequisite driver of engagement. You ‘like’ your tribe, you ‘like’ what you do – yes? If there were tools and processes, but you didn’t particularly like or have emotional attachment to what you were asked to do with them, nor to the people you worked with, or with the reason the tribe exists – would you really be engaged? Could you choose to be? Would you really exert discretionary effort doing something you didn’t really care about for people you didn’t really care for without a real cause? I think you might be satified to do that, but engaged? Loyal? I’m not convinced. I think, just like human motivation, we are not just motivated to acquire, but to bond, create and defend – and each of those are driven by strong ’emotions’. Engagement is emotional, IMHO. If we can remove emotions of frustration through tools and processes, all the better.

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