I can't make you love me: the truth about employee engagement

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There are a lot of definitions of employee engagement out there, and they’re all missing the mark. It’s not that they are inaccurate—it’s that the way we define engagement is making it harder, ironically, for us to solve the problem of disengagement.

Here’s what’s happening:

Engagement is most commonly defined as the level of “emotional commitment or connection” an employee has to the organization and its goals. That’s an intuitively satisfying definition—we can certainly imagine someone who is committed and connected working very hard and giving extra effort. It makes sense.

This is a big challenge, however, because there is not an obvious lever you can pull that will improve someone else’s level of emotional connection and commitment. It’s internal to them. I can’t make you love me.

Of course, we now have a $1 billion industry trying to figure that out. Researchers and consultants have been making cases for their particular models for moving the needle on engagement, which includes things like having a best friend at work, getting consistent feedback from managers, creating a clear career path, etc. The research has been mostly correlational—for example, the highly engaged employees tend to report more often that they get a lot of feedback from managers (i.e., feedback and engagement are positively correlated). Seeing that correlation, we assume that giving people feedback is a solution to the engagement problem—-it will improve that level of emotional commitment and connection.

Except sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes we give them more feedback and it has zero impact on their level of engagement. That’s the problem with correlations.

We haven’t necessarily identified the underlying cause, which is why we’re not moving the collective needle on engagement. We’re chasing solutions based on correlations and not understanding the root cause at all.

Our $1 billion investment is focused on the symptoms, and it’s not working.

We are suggesting a more direct approach.

Let’s define engagement in a way that identifies root causes up front:

Employee engagement is the level of emotional commitment and connection employees have to an organization, which is driven by how successful they are at work, both personally and organizationally.

Employee engagement is the result of people being consistently successful. Period.

When the organization I work for creates an environment where I can be consistently and deeply successful in my own personal work—and on top of that my individual success contributes clearly to the success of the organization—then I will be a highly engaged employee.

But as soon as you start messing with success, engagement (commitment, connection) is going to decline. Here are some common culprits, by the way:

  • Making people go through unnecessary red tape to get things done

  • Blocking people from serving the customer because they lack the “authority” in the org chart

  • Setting your people up to fail by not training them adequately

  • Missing the ball on big shifts in your operating environment (remember when Kodak missed the digital camera revolution?) so people’s efforts seem futile

The reason those efforts hurt engagement is because they inhibit both individual and organizational success.

Let’s stop chasing solutions that happen to be correlated with the end result we want. Let’s start addressing the root cause: creating systems that consistently enable more individual and organizational success. The higher engagement will follow.

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Did you like this? It’s an excerpt from our new book, the Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement. Read the book for more! (Or get a free sample chapter here).

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Photo by Cristi Tohatan on Unsplash