De-scaling Employee Engagement?

Paul Hebert Employee Engagement, employee experience, Engagement and Satisfaction, HR Tech, HR Technology, Paul Hebert

Scale. The holy grail of technology.

Scale. What VCs look for in any new application, service, technology.

Scale. The thing in the bathroom I avoid like the plague because I can’t avoid Twinkies.


Does it scale? That’s the question everyone wants to know. It’s almost a religion today. Everything needs to scale. What do I mean by scale? I mean a process, procedure or technology works for one person or one million. Scale is the ability to easily (and cost-effectively) add transactions, people, outputs, inputs, etc. to a system and have that system hold up and keep ch-ch-chugging along.

And HR systems are no different. Scale is how you make money. If the marginal cost (real $ and/or effort) is low, I can make more money at an increasing rate. And almost everyone in the HR tech world is working that angle. I get it. It makes sense.

Except human connections don’t scale. Technology scales. Humans don’t.


I’ve posted before on the Dunbar number. The “Dunbar Number” is a suggested limit to the number of good, connected relationships we humans can support. That number is roughly 150 people. After 150 people, our connection gets less personal, less real. Sure—we can do thousands on Twitter and Facebook – but we’ll end up being a mile wide and an inch deep. Real relationships are a mile wide AND a mile deep. And that applies in both the “non-work” world (if there is such a thing) and the work world. Our capacity for close, connected, human relationships isn’t that big.

Enter Tech

But, when people saw how we added friend after friend to Facebook, they figured they could apply that same logic to the HR systems we use to manage our employees, our teams, and our direct reports. The same thinking that goes into allowing a company to send 100,000 spam emails is now helping companies send 500 emails to employees with the same “heartfelt” transparency and authenticity.

Technology allows managers to scale the employee relationship, they say. We can save you money and time, they say. You can do performance reviews faster with less variability if you use technology, they say. You can reward people faster and easier with a mobile app, they say. You can tag employees so you can remember what skills they have. All these tasks managers normally had to do by hand can now be accomplished in half the time with half the compassion.

Human Connections Win

The whole engagement issue at most companies comes down to this very simple fact.

The more human you are with your employees, the more they want to engage with you—the manager—and “you” the company.

Technology is a barrier to connecting. In my opinion, (cuz that’s all that matters right?) anytime a technology takes the place of something that should be done face-2-face it reduces engagement. If you use tech as a substitute for a face-2-face exchange, it harms your engagement efforts. I don’t care if it scales. I don’t care if it is more efficient.

Scale what the employee can’t see. Don’t scale what they can see.

Being human doesn’t scale. Using tech to go back and forth on a review is dumb. Is it more efficient? Maybe. Is it better? No way.

I’ve said this so much I think I’m going insane—managing humans is an effectiveness play not an efficiency play.

Don’t scale human interaction. Scale EVERYTHING around it in order to give you time to create MORE human interactions.

But do not try to scale human connections. That won’t create engagement. Scaling human engagement makes it easier for employees to pull away. Whoever felt bad about breaking up with an application? (Other than google reader fans—damn you google! ~shaky-fist!)

No one stays with a company because the company has great software to manage tasks or careers. People stay because of people. Good and bad.

Focus on scaling the non-human connections and work really, really hard to avoid technology that makes it easier to not be fully present and connected at a human level.