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Misconceptions about Employee Engagement




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Overcoming 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 productive.

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 themselves.

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 events.
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 above).

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 daily...or not.

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 them.
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 performers.

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 other companies.
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.

*Leigh BranhamUsed with permission from Leigh Branham, Founder, Keeping the People, Inc (www.cmcoutperform.com) Visit:  http://www.cmctraining.org/EE- overcoming-cynicism- misconceptions