Cynicism, Misconceptions, and Apathy about Employee Engagement
Will the new decade bring new hope or just more cynicism to the business
world? You may have seen this recent Dilbert cartoon, printed last month
in the winter of our recessionary discontent:
Dilbert's Boss: "We need more of what the management experts
call employee engagement. I don't know the details, but it has something
to do with you idiots working harder for the same pay."
Dilbert: "Is anything different on your end?"
Dilbert's Boss: "I think I'm supposed to be happier."
The cartoon was an instant
classic. Unfortunately, it captured the deep employee cynicism about a
highly misunderstood business buzzword. As the cartoon suggests, many
employers have earned the cynicism by invoking the term "employee
engagement" to mean "doing more with less"-a burden to be
borne by employees. Consider the following recent survey reports:
Seventy-two percent of companies have reduced
their workforces in response to the recession,
according to Towers Perrin
The number of actively disengaged workers
increased from 3 percent to 24 percent in organizations that have
laid off employees, Gallup researchers found Watson Wyatt's
Employee Engagement Index declined 9 percent for all employees from
2008 to 2009. More importantly, among top-performing employees,
engagement dropped a much steeper 23 percent.
Employee stress and workload have increased
substantially in 2008-2009,
according to a survey by WFD Consulting. Eight out of 10 respondents
reported that managers' and employees' workloads have increased,
along with employee stress.
Forty percent of 4,285 full-time
private-sector employees surveyed by CareerBuilder.com said they had
difficulty staying motivated in their current jobs, and 24 percent
said they didn't feel loyal to their current employers.
According to a survey conducted by Monster and
Human Capital Institute, 84 percent of employers indicated they
thought their workers were content because they still had jobs.
However, only 58 percent of workers agreed. The same survey found
that 57 percent of workers believe employers are exploiting the
recession to drive longer hours and lower pay from their workforces;
only 26 percent excuse their employers for requiring layoffs and
longer hours because they believe their employer's hands were forced
by the recession; 58 percent believe employers are less concerned
about employee retention; and 53 percent have decreased company
loyalty (www.ere.net/2009/10/14/survey-shows-disconnect-between-workers-and-bosses/ ).
Right Management surveyed 900 workers and
found that 60 percent intend to leave their jobs in 2010.
The 2009 Employment Dynamics and Growth
Expectations Report said 55 percent of employees plan to change
jobs, careers or industries "when the economy recovers" (http://img.icbdr.com/images/aboutus/pressroom/edge%20report_aug%202009.pdf).
Sobering as these findings
may be, the promise of employee engagement for reviving our businesses
and our economy remains compelling.
A Gallup study
involving 32,400 business units found that those with employee
engagement scores in the top quartile had 18 percent higher
productivity, 16 percent higher profitability, and 49 percent fewer
safety incidents compared with those in the bottom quartile. Considering
all these findings and the current business climate, is there any doubt
among CEOs and HR leaders that employee engagement is critical to our
economic prospects? We should expect the coming year to bring major new
employee engagement initiatives. Yet, I remain skeptical that many of
them will succeed. Some company leaders will jump on the engagement
bandwagon by conducting their first employee engagement survey, but will
fail to take action on the difficult issues it brings to their
attention. Others will fail simply because they misunderstand the nature
of employee engagement-what it is, what drives it, what puts the brakes
on it, what part of it must originate with the employee, and what
portion employers must inspire. Those who succeed will be free of these
misunderstandings and will be committed to take action. Having studied
the nature and dynamics of employee engagement, disengagement, turnover,
and retention over the past 14 years, I've come across a few
misconceptions that many leaders and managers have. I believe these
misconceptions undermine successful employee engagement initiatives
before they can even begin, so I offer them in the hope of enhancing our
collective realism, optimism, and effectiveness:
Misconception No. 1: It's
the same as satisfaction. Having experienced two
recessions in the past decade,
most managers have had to let go of this one, but it still persists,
even in HR circles.
The reality: Employee engagement is more about the
productivity that comes from enthusiasm, energy, and commitment. The
business world is filled with contented employees who are less than
Misconception No. 2:
Employees don't want to be engaged. This cuts to the core of
a basic belief that many managers and executives hold about
employees/humans-that they are lazy, untrustworthy, uninterested in
excellence, and must be micromanaged.
The reality: Even when they take jobs just to survive and
have low expectations, most employees secretly harbor the hope of
enjoying the work and performing it well. The vast majority of employees
begin their jobs with enthusiasm, but in all too many cases, they
quickly realize they are not trusted, and respond in kind--by
withholding effort they would otherwise have willingly expended.
Misconception No. 3: It's
all about hiring engaged employees.
If we just focus on recruiting and selecting only employees who are
already motivated, we won't have to spend all our time keeping them
motivated and engaged.
The reality: There's truth in this one: as football coach, Lou
Holtz, famously said, "I don't motivate my players...I just recruit
players who are already motivated." The problem here is that, after
making the hire, many managers abdicate their responsibility to coach
and manage well...or at all. Keeping employees engaged is the job of
leaders and managers, a job that is equally shared by employees
Misconception No. 4: Once
engaged, always engaged. This is a corollary to
the one above-that engagement is an innate, unchanging state. Again,
there is some truth in this-some employees have better work ethics, more
enthusiasm, and more natural energy levels. The misconception is that
employees can be counted on to sustain high levels of engagement despite
poor leadership, undependable coworkers, disruptive change, broken
promises, unclear expectations, and a host of other such triggering
The reality: Engagement is fluid, elastic, and changeable,
not static. It must be monitored, maintained, and renegotiated.
Misconception No. 5: It's
all about the immediate manager. For years, the
conventional and prevailing belief has been that employee engagement is
the exclusive province of direct managers.
The reality: Our recent analysis of 2.1 million engagement
surveys (reported in our new book-Re-Engage!) revealed that senior
leadership practices are even more critical since they create the
culture from which middle managers take their cues (not to downplay the
huge role that immediate managers play in keeping employees engaged). It
is also essential to acknowledge the responsibility that employees have
for keeping themselves engaged, and the role of leaders and managers in
challenging them to do so.
Misconception No. 6:
Engagement is enough. Many leaders understand
the importance of their role in keeping employees engaged by assigning
them engaging work, soliciting their ideas, giving them autonomy, and
recognizing their contributions, but fail to keep employees' efforts
aligned with organizational goals.
The reality: Engagement is necessary, but not sufficient.
Managers must also make sure they clearly understand organizational and
team objectives so they can tie them to the individual talents,
expectations, and objectives of the individuals they supervise.
Misconception No. 7: Fear
promotes engagement. Recently one manager responded this way to an
online article encouraging managers to make employee engagement more of
a priority in 2010: "There's one sure way to engage
employees-simply tell them if they don't get engaged, we'll replace them
with someone who is!"
The reality: Most employees these days don't need reminding
that they could lose their jobs. Some do need to be challenged in a
positive way and confronted when their effort is lacking. But to adopt
an "engage, or else" stance ignores and denies the manager's
own role as an inspiring agent of engagement (see Misconceptions 3 and 4
Misconception No. 8: Paying
more increases engagement. This is a popular
belief because, if it were entirely true, it would largely absolve
managers from having to attend to the difficult "soft stuff"
of people management.
The reality: Pay, like praise and other forms of
recognition, is a motivator when it is linked to measured performance or
a specific contribution. More often, employees experience pay as a
de-motivator when there is no link, or pay inequity, or there's
excessive secrecy about pay decisions. The most effective drivers of
employee engagement have to do with the trust, challenge, respect,
recognition, understanding, and honest communication we nurture
Misconception No. 9: All
employees are engaged equally by the same drivers.
Believing that all employees have the same hot buttons is a simple and
comforting notion. It's also not uncommon for managers to assume that
what motivates their direct reports are the same ones that motivate
The reality: The research findings we report in our new
book, Re-Engage (McGraw-Hill, February, 2010), identifies six universal
drivers of employee engagement that all employees need and seek.
However, different employees need some of the six drivers more than
others and it's up to the manager to find out who needs what and to make
sure they get what they need.
Misconception No. 10: All organizations need to focus equal efforts
on the same drivers. Many studies, including our own, have identified a
specific set of universal engagement drivers. It is understandable that
a reader might assume they all apply equally in driving engagement at
his or her business.
The reality: Though highly engaged workplaces focus on
providing plenty of all six drivers, they tend to emphasize those that
fit their cultures and will help achieve their business objectives. For
example, one of the winning workplaces we interviewed, Joie De Vivre
Hospitality, runs a chain of boutique hotels that depends on exceptional
service to hotel guests. To differentiate themselves in the market, they
have chosen recognition and valuing of hotel staff as their
"signature" driver. This means company leaders go out of their
way to notice and express appreciation for "above-and-beyond"
service, and have remained committed to hosting the end-of-the-year
annual employee appreciation banquet, even as other employers were canceling
such parties in December of last year.
Misconception No. 11: Those who stay are more engaged. If employees
stay, that must mean they are happier and more engaged.
The reality: Those who stay may be the least engaged. As we
know, the best performers have the most options and are more likely to
move on, especially as the economy improves. Smart managers focus on
making sure their top performers stay engaged. They also confront,
re-engage, coach, or, when all else fails, dismiss, their poorest
Misconception No. 12: Benchmarking engagement scores with other
companies is the most meaningful and actionable way to assess and track
your progress. Business leaders who authorize engagement surveys
understandably want to know how engaged their workforces are compared to
The reality: Some 93 percent of high-performing companies
utilize employee engagement surveys compared with 78 percent of lower
performers according to a survey conducted by the Institute for
Corporate Productivity. Comparing your scores to other companies in your
industry is worth doing, but what really matters is comparing this
year's scores to next year's and noting the impact on business
results-the only true way to see if your employee engagement initiatives
are making a difference.
Finally, there is a
self-imposed obstacle for many leaders-it's not really a
misconception-more a failure of low expectations. It is simply that
managers and leaders have come to accept low levels of engagement in
their workforces. The winning workplaces that my co-author, Mark
Hirschfeld, and I profile in our new book are those who refuse to accept
average engagement-reported by Gallup as roughly 25% engaged, 60% not
engaged, and 15% actively disengaged among U.S. employers. The companies
we interviewed, such as Gaylord Hotels and Resorts, Vertex
Pharmaceuticals, Winchester Hospital, Rackspace Hosting, Nalley
Automotive, JDV Hospitality, and Quality Living, Inc. aspire to and
achieve much higher levels of employee engagement. In the final
analysis, it may be that apathy and resignation to the current sad state
of employee engagement is far more serious threat than employee cynicism
and the misconceptions listed above.
with permission from Leigh Branham, Founder, Keeping the People, Inc (www.cmcoutperform.com)