Maybe Engagement Isn’t the Right Goal…

Today’s post comes to us from board member, China Gorman.  

I’ve been thinking and speaking about organization culture for a long time. If you look at the longitudinal data collected by Gallup (whether or not you agree with their definition of engagement), it’s easy to see that despite billions and billions of dollars invested in improving engagement, the needle isn’t moving at all.

So, I’ve come to the conclusion that “engagement” is a red herring.

Engagement is short-hand for a great corporate culture that attracts and retains the exact right talent that is needed to acquire, serve, and retain the desired customer set. Engagement is created by leadership behaviors and practices – some unique, some not – that make up the foundation of your organization’s culture and the heart of the relationships you have with your talent. It really isn’t a thing unto itself.

Let me give you an example. No matter how many wonderful services and perks you offer your employees at their worksite or office (think any Silicon Valley employer), if your leadership isn’t trustworthy and believable, there’s no way a majority of your employees will be engaged enough to make a long-term commitment to stay. Perks do not create engagement. Truth telling and trust create engagement.

Traditional top-down, hierarchical organization dynamics are blockages to engagement. Leaders who are not personal and approachable create impersonal and, in some cases, fear-based environments. Employees need to feel personally recognized by their bosses and by the organization’s leadership. Recognized as real people, not just skill sets. Approachable and personable leaders create engagement.

If employees don’t understand why what they do has meaning to the end user (internal or external), they’ll look for other organizations that will help them feel connected to the work and to the mission in a way that gives definition to their lives. When employees feel connected to the outcomes of their work and the work of the organization, they feel engaged in the mission. But supervisors and managers have to help employees make those connections. Meaning creates engagement.

Some organizations believe that engagement is all about the money. There are a great many organizations with truly horrible, demeaning cultures that have to overpay their employees in order to attract them. Hazard pay, I believe it’s called. But the second another employer that treats employees like living, breathing human beings makes an approach – even with less money but more respect – they’re gone in a heartbeat. Loyalty works both ways and organizations known for being fair – in all things, including compensation – win the talent attraction and retention game nearly every time. Compensation fairness creates engagement.

These are just four components – of many – that create an engaged workforce. There’s no single silver bullet. Engagement is not just one thing. It’s the outcome of many things – beginning with consistent, fair leadership behavior that values human beings.

So maybe the goal isn’t engagement, after all. Maybe the goal should be fair, trustworthy, meaning-focused leadership. Until that is achieved, employee engagement is not possible.

4 thoughts on “Maybe Engagement Isn’t the Right Goal…

  1. Well said China. I couldn’t agree more. As I recently discussed with one of our Courage to Lead Award winners (1 of the top ~20 people managers at Kronos)… The work that we’ve done at Kronos to create the best workplace environment and experience for employees, was / is never focused on winning awards. We genuinely feel like creating that type of environment is the right thing to do for our employees… and, by extension, for the business and ultimately our customers. It’s a true win, win situation. As it turns out, when you have success in that area you get recognized and win awards. Those awards, reviews, etc. do help us from a branding perspective with both candidates and customers but, in the end, are far less important than our employees feeling great about coming to work and contributing every day. Building the foundational cultural elements that enable this approach is very hard work. Necessary though if you are genuinely trying to build a great place to work for the long term.

  2. China – it is always refreshing to read a blog from you and this one is no exception – right on point! I agree that leadership is indeed the key for successful employee engagement (and all desirable outcomes) and often this topic does not get the attention it truly warrants. All organizational leaders display leadership and the big question is whether that leadership is facilitating the movement of the culture in a favorable direction, or some other direction. Whatever the path, everything flows from top leadership.

    1. Exactly right about the direction of the flow, yet the EE/EX and HR folks continue attempting (ther never really make any progress) to direct the flow up the organizatin. Ever try to push a string up an incline?

  3. Imagine how fast the EE and EX experts would go out of business if their fees were tied to the benefits their clients were able to measure in the income statement. Based on results verses costs, EE and EX may be the biggest snake oil business to have ever evolved. For example, try to find a single “expert” who leads off their presentation, book or EE/EX sales pitch with examples of their prior work delivering vale the client could measure. The first thing you hear when presenting this challenge is “well, you have to understand that EE is difficult to measure…. No, actually it’s very easy to measure when done right. As long as the experts confine their sales, marketing and services to HR, then they’ll probably avoid any critical oversight for a few more years. I suspect their fees are low enough that no one really cares to challenge the investment, after EE/EX just sounds so reasonable a goal. Well, EE/EX can be measured when it is hoasted by the CEO and executed by a third party not incumbered by politics, culture and silos. Here’s an example:

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