The Dark Side Of Employee Engagement

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It’s a catchy headline. It’s not mine. It’s from this article. Virtuously, it quickly reveals that dark side: “The only reason that any of this employee engagement stuff happens, is because companies want you to make them money.” I’m not sure that is such a dark side, or that it would be much of a surprise. It also disregards the organisations that aren’t profit-driven like charities, volunteer groups and government agencies who also see value in employee engagement.

But then the article takes a great turn and focuses on ROI – return on investment. That’s a much better turn of phrase and I agree with the sentiment behind it. Any kind of organisational effort, including employee engagement programmes, need to have a point, a purpose, goals and objectives. And achievement of, and progress towards, those objectives need to be monitored and measured. How can we know if we’ve succeeded (or not) if we don’t know and agree what success is? Investment in employee engagement is often more than money – there’s time, effort, risk to reputation, the opportunity cost of other efforts you could have done instead that you chose not to do, and more.

Fessing up, the Star Wars imagery idea is mine. That article didn’t impose that. I’m pretty sure Darth Vader didn’t put much effort into employee engagement, although that bit where he used the force to telekinetically strangle a commander who failed to capture “the rebel scum” did seem very motivational in the short term.

 

Don’t Believe The Employee Engagement Hype

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What distinguishes a timeless classic piece of leadership thinking from a flash-in-the-pan, flavour-of-the-month, keep-a-consultant-employed piece of hype? Names and labels may come and go and employee engagement as a phrase might be a relatively new kid on the block but the principles seem pretty timeless to me. This article cites a few problems with the current enamour with whatever people think employee engagement might be: lack of definition, lack of valid measures, it’s not new, lack of evidence and over-hyped claims. These criticisms would be true of anyone claiming anything about anything. And they’re a great place to start in critiquing a piece of leadership thinking that you weren’t previously familiar with.

I’d agree with his sentiments in general, particularly the first one – lack of definition. I’ve been very strong on having a specific definition and distinguishing it from even more fuzzy concepts such as employee morale, satisfaction and happiness. I define it quite narrowly as the observation of discretionary effort – people doing more than they have to because they choose to. From that narrow and specific definition, it’s a lot easier to address the issues of measurement, evidence and hype.

Long Distance Employee Engagement

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In my career, I once managed teams in various locations and teams who also worked around the clock. It wasn’t far but it was far enough. This geographic and chronological distribution is quite a challenge to manage. Technology both offers some solutions and causes some problems. The management from a distance, be it time or space, requires planning and purposeful effort. This post has a neat list of 12 ideas about promoting employee engagement with remote employees that are well worth considering and / or trialling depending on your own long-distance situation.

Employee Engagement – Affected By Gossip?

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Gossip is a disease. This article makes several sensible correlations between the spread and effects of behind-backs-chitchat and that of actual disease. In both cases, it is better to catch it and cure it early. I’ll add my own 2-cents’ worth to the imagery – it’s far better to immunize beforehand than ever have to cure anything at all. Prevention better than cure said someone’s grandmother, I’m sure.

WikiHow has its 8-steps to solving office gossip, including such classics as “Know what gossip is” and “don’t participate in it yourself.”

This Forbes article does suggest that it’s really only ‘negative gossip’ you should crack down on while actively encouraging ‘positive gossip.’

The simplest solution would be not to employ people at all. If an organisation has 3 people, it’s going to have (at least) 3 separate gossip streams going at any one time. Best to employ robots. They don’t gossip and can be programmed to take the blame if things go south.

Top 10 Employee Complaints – How Do These square With Employee Engagement?

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What do you reckon the top 10 complaints from a survey of over two million employees of over 2000 organisations might be? This post lists that top ten. If ‘top’ is the right adjective.

The guts of much of the writing behind employee engagement rests on the primary motivational drivers of employee engagement being intangible, intrinsic people-things like personal development, a sense of purpose, a sense of control or influence over what gets done. Everyone usually downplays money. Where do money-related issues fall in this list of the top ten employee complaints?

1. Higher salaries – pay is the number one area in which employees seek change.
2. Internal pay equity, particularly having concerns with “pay compression” (the differential in pay between new and more tenured employees).
3. Benefits programs, particularly health/dental, retirement, and Paid Time Off/vacation days. Specifically, many employees feel that their health insurance costs too much, especially prescription drug programs.
4. “Over-management” (A common phrase seen in employee comments is “Too many chiefs, not enough Indians”).
5. Pay increase guidelines should place greater emphasis on merit.
6. The Human Resource department needs to be more responsive to their questions and/or concerns.
7. Favoritism.
8. Improved communication and availability (both from their supervisors and upper management).
9. Workloads are too heavy and/or departments are understaffed.
10. Facility cleanliness.

Before I swallow this as complete, representative and accurate, I’d have to go and check out the survey and the methodology and the motivations of those doing the surveys – both the company, the employees and the researchers. I’d be really loathe to give much credence to a check-box list of pre-drafted items from which respondents could select or rank. It’s more effort than I’m prepared to apply as no one is paying me to do it. The post only provides a link to the website of the research company not to the research itself. It doesn’t even date it, implying that it’s recent.

Completely subjectively, people have a job to make money and pay the rent / mortgage. Some of my friends are professional comedians. They do what they love with a skill they’ve developed. There’s is both an artistic pursuit for its own sake and a business they own. I never hear any of them complaining about their ‘job.’ I doubt many of them believe what they do is a job how they define it. It’s not particular to comedy. I know a diverse range of business people with similar mindsets. That said, when they do complain, they complain about money.

That said, there’s a world of difference between things that drive behaviour and things that cause complaints. I’m too lazy to go read my own book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’ right now. There’s a section in there citing some classic research. (I would go look it up but no one is paying me to.) Roughly from memory, it seems people would rather be paid less in total, as long as they were being paid relatively more than those around them. There’s another piece of research that found that the 2 types of people most opposed to rises in the minimum wage were the very very wealthy and… the people just above the minimum wage…

Is Employee Engagement A Load Of Bull?

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This blog post , albeit a tad arrogant, makes one good point – that giving someone a raise might be the best way of engaging them. It’s a super close-minded post but they are right in the sense that bleeding heart hugs won’t make anyone into super-productive super-stars if they’re terrified that they’ll miss mortgage payments. They’re working for money, not for love. All those consultants peddling better communication are full of bull.

The blogger is right that money is important, maybe for many the most important influencer. But he’s as wrong as the full-of-bull communication peddlers and for the same reason – focusing on one thing. Local research in New Zealand indicates that the smartest approach is a combination of methods – a smorgasbord. And just like all-you-can-eat buffets, different people have different preferences and even within individuals they change over time. (Although, I will always love scallops! And for some reason, I feel like steak right now…)

Do Engaged Employees Need To Be Plugged In?

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This article reports on ‘wearable technology’ that can monitor micro aspects of worker performance. They seem well-intentioned, making comparisons to the bands and such that fitness trainers give their clients to monitor their steps and sleep. I suspect the potential to use the devices for evil is pretty high. I used to work with call centres and thought that was one particular job where human discretion was significantly limited (or limit-able) by measurement and monitoring technology.  This takes the premis to the extreme and there isn’t even the need for the human in question to be tethered to any computer by a cable or headset

To be honest, I’d probably be OK if a bell went ‘ding’ if my posture went off target. It’s in my own interest and the firm’s that I maintain a healthy posture. I’ll be healthier and happier and look taller and more confident. Plus for the boss, there’s probably a long term link to health, wellbeing and productivity or at least less absenteeism if my posture is good. Customers might think I have a better attitude. If there’s a GPS component like sports teams use to see which player covers the most ground and that they’re where they’re supposed to be, that’s probably an integrity tool that some bosses might find themselves needing if the whole ‘trusting people’ thing hasn’t been panning out but it isn’t for everyone all the time. Wristbands that measure and encourage you to take 10000 steps a day have been around for ages and no one is up in arms about those.

Philip L. Gordon and R. Brian Dixon, attorneys from management law firm Littler Mendelson, told Bloomberg BNA May 15 that employee consent to wear the technology is critical.”

 

These new gadgets porport to measure brain activity. I am curious as to what my optimum brain activity is in any given work day or if it there is any when I’m watching TV but I’m not sure I want big brother buzzing me every time I glaze over a bit. That said, if I’m a truck driver maybe that’s a really good idea for safety?

Do Points And Prizes have A Point? – Engagement Games

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Here’s a tale of yet another software system that gamifies the workplace with the justification that it enhances employee engagement. Actually, it sounds pretty cool and may well be worth its costs with whatever benefits it may or may not generate versus the distractions it definitely will generate. I’ve yet to personally witness or directly connect with a significant workplace that has done this for a significant amount of time and publicly raves about the tangible, measured and proven results. Alfie Kohn might be controversial but his research does not reinforce the use of what he would term ‘bribes’. And that is what ‘points for prizes’ are.

Genuine engagement comes from an internal motivation. If the gamified points-for-prizes were removed, would the desired behaviours continue? Nope. And you’ve thoroughly reinforced the position that they shouldn’t. Plus, the incidental stuff that isn’t directly being bribed via points-for-prizes suffers. “Is this going to be in the test?”

“…money affects our attention as shown by Alfie Kohn’s experiment where participants are given cash for remembering words on cards, but they are almost unable to remember any of the word cards’ colours. That wasn’t what they were focused on so their incidental learning was minimal. The same goes for our incidental attention.”From my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’

Of course, that is assuming there is a culture of support already in existence for people’s internal motivation. Given the generally terrible levels of engagement everywhere, this clearly isn’t the case. If motivation levels are starting from a baseline of terrible, I guess the games can’t make things any worse. But is, “Can’t make it any worse” really a sound tick in any cost / benefit analysis for a software investment or intrusive engagement project?

Carol Dweck might argue that the problem isn’t that we reward, but what and how we reward.

“Dweck’s famous finding from this and other studies was that people tended to fall into one of two groups. There are those who believe that their talents are a fixed trait. They believe they are or they aren’t fast, strong, smart, etc. This is the fixed mindset group. Then there are those who believe that talent is something that can be developed. This is the growth mindset group. You can tell them apart by their behaviour towards work and mistakes. If you have a fixed mindset and believe you are what you are then why would you work hard and why would you attempt something new or challenging that could lead you to making mistakes and being judged on them? Growth mindset people do the work and see mistakes as a pathway to learning. They use the word “yet” a lot. They say, “I did” versus “I am”. For them, becoming is better than being.”  – From my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’

So, by all means, play your silly games and see how it goes. True ongoing engagement that drives productivity comes from a working environment supportive of people’s need for autonomy, development and a sense of meaning in what they do, and a pay level sufficient to remove money as a worry. If points-for-prizes are offered as a short-term attention campaign, I can see it working in a focused way in an area with a definite problem. A health and safety campaign or a wellness campaign for example are, in themselves, good things and might contribute to an overall enhancement of engagement.

I’m trying not to be a hater here on the points and games, but all the info I see on them right now seem to come from those selling systems. Once I hear some credible and independent success stories, I tend to be a lot more generous of spirit.

 

Feedback: The Lifeblood Of Employee Engagement

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Last night I performed a small set of stand-up comedy at the Auckland Town Hall as part of an ensemble line-up in a show for Amnesty International called ‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball.’ It was part of the New Zealand International Comedy Festival. Generally, I try and separate my two strands of business as a leadership speaker / trainer / author and as a stand-up comedian but last night reminded me of one important parallel – feedback.

The show went very well and every performer nailed it. Te Radar was MCing and did a fine job. About half the line-up were very good local comedians and half were visiting overseas comedians. This was my first comedy gig in a few months so I couldn’t have wished for a better re-entry gig. That said, if it isn’t funny, they won’t laugh. Instant, honest feedback that can be used (should be used) in real time to alter your performance for the better. What job wouldn’t benefit from that? (The instant honest feedback, not the being laughed at. Few jobs would benefit from that.)

What can you do in your workplace to enhance the timeliness of the feedback your people receive?

Comedians sometimes get reviewed as my show did last night:

Terry Williams provides some lovely comic moments throughout his time at the microphone, pulling laughs by chatting about his family life and his mid-life crisis trip to an Indonesian jungle away from civilization. He is very much at home on the stage, and from his entrance it is like watching an old friend: lovely jubbly, as Del Boy would say.” 

British-based American comedian Reginald D Hunter was opening the show and, in conversation back stage, he told me that I “looked like a kiwi JFK.” I hadn’t performed yet so it was a comedy reference but it was valuable feedback. I might get a haircut this week…

‘Live Work Love’ – Free For A Day

My new book in Kindle format is free for a day and that clock is ticking. Normally $US9.99. #Add10Years

live work love Terry Williams kindle cover 150

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