We Have Employee Engagement @$$-backward

Employee engagement is one of those things that seem to have taken on a life of its own recently.  Every HR professional is worried about it.  Every company that sells to HR has wrapped an “engagement” feature or benefit into their offering.  “Need new paperclips for the office?  Use ours – they increase employee engagement!”

Employee engagement is – and will be for the near future – THE topic of conversation.  At least until the “boomers leaving in droves” doesn’t occur and the “millenials will have 1043 jobs in their careers” doesn’t happen either.  Remember a few years back?  Weren’t we supposed to be seeing some sort of Biblical-level exodus from corporate America?  Yeah – that happened.

Rethinking the Engagement Paradigm

As I talk with clients and the companies that feed the engagement beast I can’t help but think we’re all looking at the same disease but treating the symptom – not the cause.

Companies left and right are spending oodles of cash to “engage” their employees yet the numbers keep falling.

I’ve gone on record before that employees have learned how to respond to surveys in a way that gets them more stuff.  Each time a company surveys their employees, the numbers drop and they add a new perk or bennie to “increase engagement.”  Employees see this and they figure out that as long as the company thinks they are disengaged they get more stuff.

Momma didn’t raise no fools.  They’ll just keep saying they aren’t connected and get more and more.

Employees Need to Give More

Uh-oh – now you’ve done it.  Employees don’t need to give more the companies do!  Not so fast.  Here me out.

I re-read a post written a few months back on TLNT site about how the author saw employee engagement through the lens of a Neil Diamond concert.  The premise of the article was: Neil Diamond does a great job of earning audience loyalty and that companies should emulate the way Neil does it to earn employee loyalty.

In a nutshell the author says that Neil starts the concert by saying he’s there to earn the audiences loyalty even after playing the same venue for 40 years.  Somehow that leads to a list of things a company must do to “earn” employee loyalty.  Things like:  understand your employees, rethink job expectations,

embed work/life into the culture, focus on teams and individuals, offer coaching and inspire the employees through transparency and communication.

Don’t get me wrong – I like those things and they should be part of the overall employee experience in today’s companies.  They should.

But the premise is wrong.


If you think about it Neil Diamond isn’t the company.  Neil Diamond is the employee.

The audience is the company. The audience paid Neil’s salary.  Neil needs the audience much more than the audience needs Neil.  So the real story from the Neil Diamond concert is that as an employee Neil Diamond gets audience loyalty by doing things that earn him that loyalty.

Translating that the real world of employees…

In order to be a great employee and EARN the perks of engagement employees must:

  • Find the needs the organization has and match their skills to them.
  • Find ways to reduce costs and increase results on their own – not when asked.
  • Focus on building teams in the organization – go beyond the cubical and break down silos – don’t wait for managers to show the way
  • Invest in skills and their future through classes, training, coaching.  Employees need to keep getting better.
  • Set time aside to talk with the company leadership – make appointments to find out what other divisions, product groups and departments are doing.  Find out how what they do interfaces with other departments and see if there is a way for the employee to improve their processes by doing their job differently.

Employee Engagement Starts With Employees

I know this is antithetical to the current guru and consultant thinking but in my world it is much better to demand quality work and engagement from the employee than to simply roll over and add a new benefit to the mix when your scores go down.

I agree that a Neil Diamond concert can provide some insight into employee engagement – but it’s more about what the employee needs to do to earn the company’s loyalty than the other way around.

What say you – too much spoiling the employee going around or is it really a problem with companies not giving enough?


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. Paul,

    Ok so let’s “pretend” for a bit that I agree with you and that employee’s are the culprit here and they need to step up… I guess what HR and business leaders are asking is… How? How do we get the employees to do that?

    • Paul Hebert says:

      First of all Christine – I’m not “blaming” employees – I’m just saying we, as managers, may be approaching the problem from the wrong angle. I’m suggesting that we’ve made engagement a “management'” problem and it really is an employee problem. In my time as a manager I saw my job as one of setting expectations, communicating clearly what was expected – both minimums and maximums of performance and then getting out of the way. Once that is done then the employee has a responsibility to go and do. If they don’t – then I have a responsibility to replace them.

      I’m convinced we are too worried about doing something to motivate employees and engage them instead of simply giving them direction and letting them go and get something done.

      So to answer your question of “how” – my answer would be my first paragraph.

  2. Jamie Resker says:

    Paul, my take-away from your post is that employees should stop waiting around for the manager/leader to pave the way. It’s great to provide management training yet leaving the “leading” up the the manager is too big of a burden; all employees should be taking more initiative versus waiting to be asked. The “I never get any feedback” shows victim behavior; go out and ask for the information versus waiting for someone to “tell” or the annual report card (performance review). Too much coddling and an over-reliance for “the company” to make things better.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Jamie – you’re right on the money. The most successful people I’ve been around always, ALWAYS took responsibility for their success vs blaming the manager for lack of feedback and transparency. They went and got the feedback.

  3. Emile Bons says:

    I would suggest to at least start measuring employee engagement within the organization; as this will help you defining the strengths and weaknesses of the employee engagement ‘domain’ and will help you to focus on those topics that might need a little more attention.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Emile – while I understand the need to measure things – engagement is one that has no benchmark. What is a good score and what are the components of good engagement – that has yet to be defined (expect by those selling surveys – and each of them differ in scoring and components.) I think there are some minimum standards a company needs to have in order to be a responsible employer and mentioned them in this post. Measuring engagement always comes down to what the company needs to do to engage employees – rarely does it say – “this is what the employee needs to do to earn those engagement benefits.”

  4. Josh Tolan says:

    This is a really interesting post! So many companies are looking at the problem of employee engagement as something they need to do within the organization to boost engagement. But you might be onto something– great engagement comes from great employees. Instead of focusing on throwing out another perk or developing another benefit in order to engage employees, perhaps companies should focus instead on hiring self-motivated workers. In the interview process, whether it’s in person or through online video, make sure to focus on candidates who are passionate about the company and willing to work hard. These self-starters will be engaged whether you continuously give them new benefits or not, and will motivate other employees to work harder as well.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Josh – that is where I would start – hiring better. But I would also suggest that most problems in companies begin and end with the first level manager. Manager training on how to communicate, set performance metrics, review and lead employees is where the engagement model breaks down. There are many companies that have few benefits and perks but have loyal employees doing great work. They just aren’t as interesting as zappos or Pantagonia.

  5. Ed Newman says:

    Paul –
    Love the A$$ backwards take and the Neil Diamond comparison.

    I agree that Engagement has taken on a life of its own. I think its because people have been trying to make it a program, when in reality it is only a measure. The way you impact that measure is by fixing the number one reason people leave their jobs – poor management. Great leadership and management is what creates the kool-aid culture.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Right on Ed – we seem to continue to install systems and procedures to do things that “managers” should be doing. Systems should enhance your abilities – not replace them. Happy New Year – be safe!

  6. Bruce Kestelman says:

    Hi Paul,

    I think the problem is that employee engagement has become “The Topic of Conversation.” Too few folks in HR and organization leadership see it more than a magic bullet. They hear about it, read articles about it, but don’t understand the effort and commitment that is required to make it so. It’s like the folks who went to Nordstrom to benchmark service and came back buying grand pianos for their lobbies. They didn’t get it.

    While employees do have some responsibility for their engagement, for me at least, it’s about the culture that is created and sustained in an organization. It takes a great deal of work and effort. It is indeed NOT about benefits and perks. However, there needs to be a level of fairness compared with other organizations and there needs to be a sense of equity with how rewards are shared.

    I think benefits got out of control not as a tool for emotional commitment (that aspect of engagement that aligns with discretionary effort), but as a tool to create rational commitment (that aspect of engagement that aligns with intent to stay). The benefits and perks and salary are probably more about the employment value proposition. It is more about getting folks in the door when it is believed that there are a finite number of folks with the right stuff for a particular organization. Think $65,000 for an intern at Facebook.

    It is about an environment where there is trust, camaraderie and pride. It is about an environment where employees can see the relationship between what they do and the mission and creation of value for customers, the organization and themselves.

    It is NOT magic though, it’s not something that is the topic of conversation. It is a great deal of hard work.



    • Paul Hebert says:

      There is always some minimum of benefit or perk that is required to get the best employees – the hygiene factors as someone smarter than me said a few decades back – that’ s a given. But from that point on it should be a two-way street – give and get on both sides. I’m just seeing so much give on the part of the company that it’s now out of balance. But that’s just my opinion. I’ve been wrong before, I think. Happy New Year – be safe!

  7. Tasha Capen says:

    Reading the comments and Paul’s responses to them leaves me feeling slightly more in alignment with the ideas in the post than I did at first. For me, both the term “employee engagement” and the Neil Diamond analogy, miss a critical point – the mutuality of need for one another. Companies don’t exist without employees AND leaders, and employees don’t exist without companies.

    Lookiing for silver bullet solutions, programs, initiatives…whatever…to “solve” employee engagement misses the point of the mutually beneficial “contract” between employee and organization. What’s needed is the successful integration of two points made in the comments: Paul’s response to the first post about the responsibility of (especially first line) managers to “[give] them direction and [let] them go and get something done,” and Jamie’s later spot-on comment about the employee’s responsibility to take initiative and to not expect the company to completely cater to them.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Tasha – right on! My point is in fact that engagement requires inputs and outputs on both sides – I do think that information is being lost on many companies – or they are afraid to enforce it for some reason. Employment is a defacto relationship and needs to be managed and nurtured as a relationship. Happy New Year – be safe – and thanks for reading and commenting.

  8. Dave Groves says:

    I really agree with Bruce and his assessment of the crtical role that an” authentic Culture” plays in engagement. So many companies pay for “the words” and “incentive programs” for increasing employee engagement, while only looking for True Value, being the corporate / executives fiscal bottom lines…..do the employees truly feel a part of the corporate team? are they / thieir productivity and committment to the company transparently recognized and appreciated…….culture is not the “policies”…is not the “campaign slogans”….is not the “token incentives that employees learn to play the game with”…..It is the “Normative Behavior….the Norms” that the company is really driven by….it is not a single entity but an ongoing and trusted process by” company/excutives and board members” and employees alike in a shared sense of pride and open trust that all engaged are respected and celebrated.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Thanks Dave for your comments here. Recognition and rewards can play a part in highlighting the “norms” that a company wants to have. Over time a culture can change if the behaviors we want are rewarded and those we don’t want are ignored. I wouldn’t paint all reward programs as negative relative to culture. All tools are at the mercy of the intelligence that wields them.

  9. Abhi Gill says:

    Paul, you make a good point and the Neil Diamond analogy is great. This is something I’ve been going on about with leaders at our company for a while now and it seems to be working. The bottomline is that employees with high levels of accountability (i.e. employees low on avoidance, blame-shifting, denial, justification related behaviours) tend to respond more positively on engagement surveys versus employees who are low on accountability (i.e. high on defense mechanisms) and tend to respond negatively no matter how good a culture leaders try to create. This is because people low on accountability wil always try and find a problem outside themselves and are not comfortable with the feeling of discomfort ownership creates.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Great point Abhi – I think I’ve seen the same discussion but framed under “locus of control” – those that see themselves as the ones in charge of their destiny vs. those that always think their outcomes are based on someone else’s actions. If only we could find a way to identify those that believe they are the center of action vs. someone else? What am I saying – I’m sure there is a tool out there that someone will sell us.

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