Q: I want to be a great leader. What’s this thing called “employee engagement” I’ve been hearing about? Is it just consultants coming up with some new term to sell me their services, or what? I’m hoping it’s real. Economic times are tough. I need something to get more out of the team I lead. – Bewildered of Birkenhead
A: Dear Bewildered of Birkenhead,
The phrase “employee engagement” might be new and it certainly is flavour of the month in leadership literature, but the underlying concept is true and timeless human nature.
Employee engagement is not “morale” or “satisfaction” or “happiness”. Plenty of unhappy people are highly productive and plenty of deliriously happy folk are fine with showing up, punching a clock, getting paid and going home regardless of whether anything productive happens. Employee engagement is the extent to which an employee chooses to apply discretionary effort. It’s doing more than you have to because you choose to.
So, there are engaged employees doing more than they have to, present employees who do only what they have to, and disengaged employees who are reading this careers section at work to find a new job with anyone who isn’t you.
The numbers vary a little across time, industry and geography, but they’re remarkably consistent: 26 per cent are engaged, 28 per cent are disengaged and 46 per cent are present.
These are averages. What are the proportions in your workplace?
UnderArmour’s founder Kevin Plank’s got some views on what motivates employees. Here’s an article about them. I don’t agree with everything in it, especially the bit about “happiness,” but otherwise, with emphasis on autonomy and connecting business success to employee success, it’s very sound.
The articles key points are:
- Set a good example
- Focus on employee happiness* rather than employee motivation
- Make sure employees share in the company’s success
- Create a culture of autonomy and agency
- Encourage workers to voice complaints
- Take on fun volunteer assignments
- Get in touch with your inner start-up
* (I think they mean culture rather than happiness really. There’s no evidence linking happiness in its literal sense to productivity one way or the other. That said, I like happiness personally.)
There’s some ‘meat n potatoes’ engagement stuff in there but there’s some clever and original thinking too. I love the ‘anti-fan club’ concept to proactively create a medium in which beefs can be aired and sorted early. This links nicely with my ‘Go ugly early’ philosophy in my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’ .
The ‘controlled chaos’ referred to in the article is engagement in action. Scary to conservative managers, it’s accepted and sought after by genuine leaders. And it’s coming up to Christmas where controlled chaos is, apparently, what we all want on the roads the shops and our homes.
This blogger’s Forbes post is kind of arrogant. Kind of right but kind of arrogant. He explicitly slams Daniel Pink’s book ‘Drive’ which is anyone’s right to do but the basis on which he does so is wrong. We could all ignore this as the rantings of an internet troll if this guy was not a professor and founder of “one of the country’s leading management research organizations.” (Is there a countdown show for those hosted by Ryan Seacrest?) He claims that Pink claims that money is not a motivator. That is not so. Pink specifically raves about money as a motivator:
– to get people to take a job in the first place, and
– in linear and repetitive tasks
What Pink refuses to accept is that money is always a motivator as traditional carrot-and-stick thinking would have us believe. I suspect the guy’s actual beef is that Pink is making money from books and speeches. They’re essentially saying the same thing – people are different and motivated by different things under different circumstances. One size does not fit all.
Actually for all his arrogance, I agree with almost all of what he says and his conclusions and that’s even after the prejudice with which which I read it due to his name being Edward E. Lawler III. Is it a peculiarly American thing to throw down that middle initial? Even so I don’t have too much a problem with that in isolation. At least It wasn’t E. Edward Lawler III with an initial first. I don’t know what it is but I just have an inherent distrust of the III. And that’s not just movies but people too. (Godfather III or Police Academy III anyone?) The middle initial and the III in tandem, well, that’s just a credibility double whammy to me.
Anyways, I totally agree with E.’s conclusion that:
“Looking at the results of employee engagement surveys and developing action plans based on them requires looking at the items on the survey in terms of what they measure. Do they measure satisfaction? Do they measure motivation? Once this is done, and only once it is done, does it make sense to think about action items such as making work more interesting, providing more job security, or rewarding performance with bonus plans?
“Yes, engagement scores are indicators of how good or bad a work situation is. In most cases, it is better to have higher rather than lower engagement scores, but in order to take action directed towards improving organizational performance, the items need to be looked at separately and used to make data-based changes that will drive employee retention, performance, and commitment.”
And he bangs onto about surveying people’s feelings for no specific purpose with which I agree too.
And I really love his point that people are different and motivated by different things at different times for different reasons. That’s a great point and a fundamental starting point for any workplace leader thinking and planning. He’s also right about writers trying to grab attention for the books which I certainly stress in my own book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’ available at www.terrywilliams.info/books 😉
This blog post from Liz Ryan reckons employee engagement is a racket for HR consultants to lever their way into organisations’ budgets preaching the faux theory de jour:
“Every decade or so, a bright new theory about managing people gets HR chiefs all excited… What is Employee Engagement? It’s a made-up construct that seeks to measure how well our employees like us. We used to talk about employee morale…”
Given how she defines employee engagement, I agree a bit with her. Quite a bit. If it is just another phrase for employe morale, I’ve blogged repeatedly how that doesn’t have that much to do by itself directly with productivity and profitability or even being a decent place to work. What people think they feel or say they think they feel on a survey is probably not worth the time to collect.
However, that’s not the true definition of employee engagement as measured by directly observable discretionary behaviour by employees. They don’t have to be happy or be able to recite the company’s mission from memory. Those two things may or may not contribute to a state of mind where the employee applies discretionary effort. That’s employee engagement – doing more than you have to, more than you’re told to – seeking improved mastery, autonomy and a sense of purpose, driven by heightened self awareness and a desire to influence others.
By that true (truer?) definition, I would not agree with Liz. Not about employee engagement anyways. I probably would about the whole general ‘racket for HR consultants to lever their way into organisations’ budgets preaching the faux theory de jour’ thing. That happens all the time and for $3500 a day, I’ll tell you all about it. Might even draft up a survey…
This company’s website has some useful overview stats on employee engagement, especially the consequential benefits. It’s simply but very effectively presented in graphical form. Nice job. Some telling stats too – such as 75% of managers having no engagement strategy despite 90% of them stating that they know it’s important and impactful on business success.
This article has a great quote and a word of warning to workplace leaders, “Once-engaged employees who are now disengaged can cause more harm to a company than those who were never engaged.”
It varies slightly from time to time and from country to country and, even, industry to industry but, let’s say roughly, research shows that 26% of employees are engaged & 28% actively disengaged. The 28% is bad enough but that missing 46% are ambivalent. It’d be easy and understandable for workplace leaders to target their efforts at improving or managing out the disengaged. Or even considering that the biggest bang for their buck and time and effort would be investing in better engaging the ambivalent middle 46% who merely show up. That’s not a bad idea but it should NOT be done at the expense of the highly engaged who are choosing to apply discretionary effort at work.
For a start, if the ones you’re trying to move up into the engaged group see how you’re failing to support the engaged group, that’s likely to be self-defeating for you. Personally, I believe that people who are engaged are far more likely to be self-motivated at work and in life generally by the pursuit of greater autonomy, development towards mastery in skills and movement towards some sense of purpose. If you just get out of their way, you’re unlikely to be able to diminish those drives that exist within them. However, if you’re short-sighted and inobservant, you could chip away at their abilities to pursue those self drivers.
They would most likely leave but, in the meantime, would they become a worse contributor to your workplace than if they’d never been engaged in the first place?
The article quotes findings from research conducted by Florida State University College of Business. “Model employees committed to their organisation are willing to go the extra mile to see it thrive but can give up if they sense that they’re being asked to do more and more, and with fewer resources, while comparatively little is being asked of their less-engaged colleagues.”
I doubt that a truly engaged person would sulk and withdraw but it’s never a good idea to reward poor performers and punish good performers, even if it is easy to do in the short term. How many newbie team leaders find themselves saying something like, “Hey great job. Can you finish this task that someone else couldn’t?” Maybe if that’s only an occasional occurrence and if it’s handled well and if there’s something in the extra work that appeals to the top performer being ‘rewarded’ with more work, that scenario might be OK. Maybe.
But, over time , if that’s all there is for the engaged top performer, I can see some resentment potential. It might cause them to leave but they won’t turn on you nor will they give up. They’ll simply give up ON YOU. But the things a leader can do (or not do) that will contribute to the talented and engaged employees giving up are anything that messes with those core drivers of the pursuit of greater autonomy, development towards mastery in skills and movement towards some sense of purpose.
Ideally, employees should be like the judges at Olympic ice skating with their little scorecards ready to hold up every time you ‘perform’ as their leader. But they don’t. They’d probably end up with repetitive strain injury anyway…
This TIME Magazine article by Jeff Haden is short, sweet and worth a read. It’s theme to me seems to be that effective leaders deal with things in the ‘now.’ It suggests that many of the formal structures of organisations in dealing with people such as performance reviews, formal meetings and development plans occur too late to be useful. I agree… IF those reviews and plans are all that is done. My advice to leaders in the workplace is to do both – deal with stuff as it happens, which really is the smart and effective approach, BUT also keep thin but useful records so you can plug things into the formal structures. You don’t want to create a massive administrative workload but you do want to capture an ongoing record.
Memory in a tricky thing. It isn’t like pulling discs out of a video library and replaying exactly what happened. For a start, even your initial experience of the event is distorted by your perspective, as opposed to the perspectives of the other players. Whoever said that there are two sides to every story were severely underestimating. Time, emotion, biases and other stuff further distort memory. By the time we do need to recall a past event, our minds don’t replay, they recreate. Assuming, of course, that it ever gets recalled at all. I barely recall what I had for breakfast yesterday. How could I, or my employees, be expected to accurately and fairly recall something that happened six months ago? You can’t. You shouldn’t.
Feedback (of whatever kind) to be effective needs to be as close to the event as possible. Saving it up for a performance review in six months is of little use and perhaps even counterproductive. I agree with Haden on that. BUT I do think that all those little events in all those ‘nows’ across a year or six months or whatever the review period is, need to be captured somewhere, so they can be presented in summary to give all concerned a holistic picture of performance.
Now I need to attend to what I’m going to have for breakfast today. I’m not one of you same-thing-for-breakfast-ever-day people. Your stomach might thank you but your mind gets miffed. I must search for research on what what this reveals about our mind and character. I suspect you same-thing-for-breakfast-ever-day people would make good accountants and proof-readers. I know I wouldn’t!
This really provocative ‘Democracy In America’ blog in The Economist got me thinking. They make various observations about all the noise from politicians and agencies about the need for, and urgency of, job creation. Jobs as a source of income and a sense of worth for those who need it are obviously critical. But as a tributary off the main argument flowed some thinking on the subset of people who had either lost a job or opted out of traditional fulltime employment. This, to me, was the provocative bit.
The blog suggests that a significant group of talented and educated people of a certain age were certainly searching for work but not necessarily for a job. They throw in a bit of terminology like ‘Post Materialists’ and ‘Threshold Earners.’ A threshold earner has an amount they think they need / want. Once they reach it, they choose not to work anymore. Enough is good enough. This might be a great philosophy for someone like me (or subscribers to The Economist – or, more likely, people reading bits of The Economist’ free online or in libraries.)
To me, time with my kids and being fit and creative is important. I don’t just say that, I live it – now. I didn’t always used to. I think I can label myself a ‘Threshold Earner’ although I doubt I’m a Post Materialist. Certainly my kids aren’t!
Work, be it paid or otherwise, provides us humans with a lot more than money. That said, whatever the amount is, we all do need money. I’ll hug a tree but I won’t live in one. Work gives us connection, purpose, health, development, esteem and so much more. A lack of money can mess with our heads but mere money itself is not such a drawcard anymore. If, as a leader, you want to truly start to spark genuine employee engagement at your workplace you need to understand the implications and benefits of this. Lots SAY they do.
So, by all means, let Government try and do their best to stimulate job creation or, at least, get out of the way but if you’re an employer searching to attract and retain the best talent you can, you must reconsider if the old ‘jobs’ paradigm will work for you in the future or the now. If they have the talent and can improve your business’s productivity, what can you do to make it easy for Post Materialists and Threshold Earners to work for you? Actually, let’s revisit that wording because it’s important. They don’t want to work FOR you – that’s the whole point. They want to do some of the work and get paid but they don’t want to work for you. Just because you’d love to work for you doesn’t mean everyone else would.
It’s raining heavily and I am so glad I’m not living in a tree right now.
This article by Douglas T. Kenrick realistically stresses that we can’t be trusted. He rattles off some well-known studies showing how ill-disciplined people can be when faced with temptation. Given that other studies, such as Mischel’s marshmallows, have shown that having self discipline is one of the major contributors to a person’s success, a lack of it must be cause for concern.
I want to dislike the article because the guts of it is that we cannot trust ourselves so rather than try to change ourselves to be more reliable, we need to affect our environment. We need to avoid or prevent the temptations being around us as much as possible in the first place. Kenrick writes mainly about food but it is as true of alcohol, smoking, loser friends and time-wasting as well. So, we shouldn’t stock our larders and fridges with sodas, cookies, candy and chips. If we suddenly feel like them and we have to walk to our car to drive to a store, we’re less likely to do so. And if these things aren’t in our faces, we’re less likely to think that we want to. Good luck with that. Avoiding things is always a problem because, ultimately, you can run but you can’t hide. You will be confronted with your enemy-items soon enough via TV, billboards, a friend’s house, your workplace. What happens then? You go even more overboard.
That stuff just gets you fat and unhealthy which isn’t great but what really sucks the success out of your life is the brain-equivalents of soda and candy – time wasters like most TV, most computer games and social networking sites. And , of course, at work we have MEETINGS. (They’re ‘candy’ for someone involved.) I’m not trying to get my nag on here. If you’re happy vegetating, please do so on your own time and dime but, please, don’t whinge about your lack of success.
People who end up happy, healthy, wealthy enough, etc are those who can defer gratification. It’s a skill not a natural attribute. You can develop it if you choose to do so and you choose to do so every day as you put in the work, in the same way as a proper weight-training programme can build muscle.
You don’t start by throwing around Olympic powerlifting levels of weights. You start small and warm up first to prevent injury and demoralisation. The same goes for building your willpower muscles. One simple but effective technique to is self correcting every time you say, “Yeah” with a, “Yes.” It’s not that your classier speech will impress people. You’re training your mind to notice what it is you’re about to do. That’s a critical first step in stopping yourself doing it. Give it a go. See how it impacts your thinking and, more importantly, your behaviour. Once you get your ‘yeahs’ sorted out, then you can work your way up to potato chips and, down the line, big life stuff like your spending, saving and studying habits.
I am so hungry right now. Yeah.
This Washington Post article by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer takes a delightfully tongue-in cheek approach to what drives talented employees out of organisations. By reverse-engineering their faux recommendations, we can glean what it is we’re supposed to do to attract and retain talented people.
Their research is primary. Rather than surveys or post-exit interviews which can be self-serving, inaccurate, subjective and occasionally fictional, they chose to provide daily electronic diaries to 200+ people. Rather than Bob or Kate saying out loud that they left ABC Limited for a better paying position at XYZ Limited, there is a trail of clues. It might actually have been an escalating and deteriorating relationship with “that jerk Barry from Accounts” which, over time, led to their departure. Accumulating all those trails of clues, Amabile and Kramer have come up with their list of commandments.
Their ‘advice’ to leaders wanting to “completely and utterly destroy an employee’s life at work” were:
- Never allow pride of accomplishment
- Miss no opportunity to block progress on employees’ projects
- Give yourself some credit
- Kill the messengers
My building blocks of a workplace that allow and generate self motivation amongst employees are self awareness, mastery, autonomy, purpose and influencing others. Human minds need them like human bodies need food. Mostly, people are only going to get that at work. Without accomplishment, a sense of progess, recognition, or blame-free communication, people are not going to attain or even move towards mastery, autonomy or a sense of purpose. If you, as a leader, prevent your people from getting them, they will leave because they’re hungry for a basic need.
After all that, if you still really do want to destroy an employee, take their advice and, as a cherry on top, wait until that employee leaves their PC, sneak on and hack their FaceBook account…