It’s Okay for You to Fail

Paul Hebert Employee Engagement, employee experience, Engagement and Satisfaction, Learning and Development, Managing People, Organizational Development, Paul Hebert, Talent Management, Training and Development, Workforce Management Articles

It’s time to discuss improving employee engagement. Or is it employee experience?

Who knows anymore?

All I know is we continue to work our butts off to find that secret sauce that will ensure employees connect with the company and pledge their eternal soul to you in HR, the department they work in, and the organization as a whole–yet nothing changes. Scores stay the same.

And, as the consultant-class tells us, without undying employee fealty, we are failures.

At least that is what all the bloggage says.

According to HR soothsayers, there is no middle ground. It is engaged or unengaged. High experience or low experience. High satisfaction or no satisfaction. Your role in engaging employees is binary. Either you’ve done the work, or you haven’t. Either managers are doing the work, or they are not. What I never see is the reality check that in fact, no matter the work you do, there will always be a bell curve of some sort that shows your employee engagement low with some, high with others and “meh” with the vast majority.

Can we just accept that?

The fact is we cannot all be outliers. Every company can’t have 85% employee engagement and/or top-level employee experience. Not because the company is doing anything wrong but because employees aren’t all cut from the same cloth. No matter what you do, you will have the same results. #FACT.

Let me explain.

You survey your employees and they respond based on what you currently have in place, which was designed to enhance their employee experience. You get some suggestions on better ways to engage. You see employees want more gluten-free La Croix water. You add gluten-free La Croix to the company Quickie Mart – thinking it will increase engagement, satisfaction, and experience, in your next survey.

You run your next survey and–wait for it–the results look similar.

The same number represents the engaged, satisfied, and experienced. What happened? You did what they asked. You listened. You connected. You brought them the things they wanted.

What happened is you simply traded those that were unhappy that they didn’t have gluten-free La Croix for those that hate gluten-free La Croix. Your satisfied are now your unsatisfied. And that’s okay.

To add gravitas to this post by using a quote from a famous person (attributed to poet John Lydgate and maybe adopted by Abraham Lincoln):

“You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”.

Our ongoing obsession with the annual, quarterly, pulse, and soon to be launched by some startup, subliminal surveys, has provided us with more data than ever related to the state of our employees’ feelings. And that data falls squarely into the “some of the time, all of the time” bucket. All our surveys represent the opinions and emotions of the most variable element in the universe – humans – at single points in time.

What could be a more rock-solid data point?

Survey me after a great meal and my wedding anniversary and everything is right with the world. Survey me after arguing with my daughter yet again about not picking up her tools in the garage and you’ll find I’m pretty disengaged with everyone and everything.

You Are Not Failing

Your engagement and experience scores are not you. They don’t represent your efforts; they represent your employees’ reaction to the company, their manager, their life and the world. You can’t control 90% of that equation, so don’t take 90% of the blame. You can only do what you can do, and that is:

  • Pay attention to trends in your scores, not the scores. Trends are important– they provide directional information. Are you increasing the total percentage of employees in the lower segments? That’s an indication to do some research and figure out what might be causing it AND if it is something you can control. Typically, it’s a single manager or a new policy – trust me.
  • Train managers to understand humans and all their differences. Too often managers have a style they want their team to adapt to, versus having a style that adapts to each individual. That is key.
  • Ask your team a lot of questions on a regular basis on what they NEED individually to do what they do best. Don’t know what they think they do best. That could be your first question – just sayin’.
  • Talk to other managers. Sometimes we forget we work on vertical AND horizontal teams. Managers at your level in other parts of the company are your team as well. As a team, you need help each other grow and get better. I’m guessing other managers have ideas and thoughts about things you’re struggling with.


Be okay with failure. Be okay with not being an outlier (only a few are). Be okay with being okay.

Treat all those engagement scores for what they are – little teeny, tiny bits of information that help you decide what to focus on for the next few weeks/days. They represent your employees’ situation – not yours. Sure, use the data as best you can but don’t turn employee engagement into a personal indictment on your work as a manager or HR professional.