Is Employee Engagement a Sisyphean Effort?

Paul Hebert Audacious Ideas, Culture, Employee Relations, Engagement and Satisfaction, Metrics, Paul Hebert

Almost every company these days wants to create a program, a process, an intervention or an initiative that creates employee engagement.  It starts with the company paying someone for a “scientifically designed and vetted” survey instrument that gives management a “score” that can be influenced.  The score, usually somewhere between 1 and 5, or 1 and 10 – or even 1 and 100 – tells management where on a finite engagement continuum their employees sit.  Obviously, when given a scale of engagement, human nature kicks in and you want to get to the highest score (whether that be 5, 10, or 100.)  Management has its eye on the prize – total employee engagement (so we’ve got that going for us.)

Ring the bell, drop the balloons and confetti and pat each other on the back.  You’ve arrived.

Let me ask this stupid question though… has anyone ever achieved total employee engagement?  Has any company ever received a perfect score (5, 10, 100)? Will they?  Nope.  Never gonna happen.  Not in this reality.

Companies want employee engagement to be a set list of things.

Flextime?  Check.  No dress code?  Check.  Dogs at work?  Check.  Fully-funded and Congress-level health care?  Check.  Parades and parties?  Check. Next survey … whaaaaat?  Scores aren’t at the top?  WTF?

Engagement Adjusted

In the incentive world, we have a phrase – “income adjusted.”  We use that phrase to sell additional non-cash awards.  We tell companies that at a certain point all employees (especially those on commission) get comfortable with their income level.  They adjust.  They make enough to have the house that is a bit more than they thought they could ever afford.  They can pay for college or at least make the payments on the student loans.  They can drive the car that makes their neighbor jealous and they can have some nice wine at dinner and not feel the pinch in the pocketbook.  They are content and happy.  They have become “income adjusted.”  Getting them to do more requires something besides their salary and their commission.  Enter awards – travel, predominately, since it is usually an experience they can’t buy on their own.

I think Employee Engagement is similar.

I believe at some point, employees will become “engagement adjusted.”  As a company adds new benefits, new initiatives, new “perks” – the engagement scores will rise and then fall back. In other words… I don’t think there is an end to employee engagement.  There is no finite continuum for engagement – no 5, 10 or 100.  Engagement will top out over time (I’ve not seen studies on this so I’m winging it here…) at about 50% engaged and 50% disengaged.  I say 50% only because I think the scores will ultimately fall back to an average score in any engagement survey.

What’s that mean (pun intended)?

It means you can’t win.  Don’t try.  Don’t try to get to the top of any scale.  It’s a Sisyphean task.

Worry about change – worry about improving – worry about being engaged.

Don’t Do Engagement – Do Engaging

If you make the mental leap I did – that engagement will always be somewhere in the middle, and that no matter what you do as a company over time, the employees will become engagement adjusted – the best you can do is maintain a specific level of engagement by being engaged with your employees.

The initiatives will change, the need will be different, the interventions will vary – but the real key element for maintaining engagement is the fact that you’re engaged.  Hawthorne proved that simply paying attention to workers increased productivity and effort.

So here’s my 2011 AHA! Moment…

Employee engagement isn’t about employee engagement – it’s about company engagement.

When I say “company” – I’m saying management (and specifically the top couple of layers – yeah CEOs included.)  It’s easy to say “company” and move on without putting the responsibility somewhere, but I’m talking heads of divisions, departments, etc.  Everybody knows who I’m talking about – I’m talking about the “they” in “they say so.”  If you don’t know if you’re a “they” – you are.  Everyone knows when they aren’t one.

I’m convinced that being engaged with your employees – listening, talking, and yes, sometimes fighting – will bring about better engagement.  Not engagement you can measure on a finite scale – but one that will continue to grow and change as employees change and as your company changes.

Did I just kill a whole industry with one post?

What do you think?  Is employee engagement a destination, a journey, a pipedream?  Are there specific “things” that will continuously drive engagement?  Can engagement ever be a destination?

Paul Hebert

Paul Hebert is Vice President of Individual Performance Strategy at Creative Group Inc, writer, speaker and consultant. Paul focuses on influencing behaviors and driving business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. He is dedicated to creating true emotional connections often overlooked in our automated, tech-enabled world. Using proven motivational theory, behavioral economics and social psychology he has driven extraordinary company performance for his clients. Paul is widely considered an expert on motivation, incentives, and engagement.