Are You Useful? The Ultimate Management Question.

Paul Hebert Employee Coaching, Employee Engagement, employee experience, Engagement and Satisfaction, Good HR, HR

I started today’s post with the idea to riff on JTBD (that’s “jobs to be done” for those in Rio Linda), a point of view pioneered by Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen. JTBD is the idea that people don’t buy what you sell–they hire out a job to achieve an objective. Approaching your business in this way opens up additional avenues for adding value. I thought it would be great to think of HR in this way. Instead of assuming we know what HR should do, I wanted to explore what HR might look like if we took the JTBD approach. And, like I always do, I Googled that concept to be sure it hadn’t been written about before. And darn if it hadn’t been. Some jerk wrote exactly this back in 2013. Here’s a link to the article: “What Job Does HR Really Do?” So, that Hebert guy on Fistful of Talent stole my idea for today’s post.

Back to square one, time to pivot.

Back to Employee Engagement

When in doubt about what to write in a post in the HR space you can always jump into the employee engagement ocean. Employee engagement is still a vast morass of ideas, opinions, solutions, and definitions. Or should I say “employee experience” now? That’s what the “hepcats” say right? At least according to those with bigger 1099s like me. The “new” HR trend is now to create employee experience. But, as they say about the weather in every US city, if you don’t like it, hang around because it will change in a few minutes. Employee satisfaction, engagement, experience, (insert a new word in 12 months) will always be a conversation in the HR space. So who am I to ignore mining such a rich avenue?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of engagement. Engagement means you care enough to do something. Engagement is leaning in. Engagement is what you do when you want to make a difference. Engagement is good.

Engagement is what happens when you feel–wait for it–useful!

Let’s Work on Making People Useful

Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

That is what HR, and all managers in general, need to focus on.


That is the only question we should put on those HR pulse surveys we’re all tired of.

That is the only question we should begin every employee “check in” with because every employee review can be boiled down to that.

“Do you feel useful here at ACME Rockets, Roller Skates and Anvils?”

The answer, whether yes or no, provides the perfect jumping off point for a much better discussion than “do you feel engaged?”

Not feeling useful –“What would make you feel useful? What do you think you do better than others? What brings you joy?”

Feeling useful–“Why? Are there other areas of the company that could take what you do to make you feel even MORE useful? What about your role makes you feel useful?”

That is a much easier conversation than “What would make you more engaged? How can I help you be more engaged?”

Useful is something we KNOW.

Engaged is something we “think we know?” (said with that questioning lilt in the voice).

I dare you to ask an employee today if they feel useful. See if their answer is any more actionable and helpful than asking if they are engaged or satisfied, or if they had a great “experience.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.