Here’s why that question is ridiculous, and what you should really care about
Employees who are engaged increase productivity by [insert percentage].”
Highly engaged organizations report [insert percentage] lower turnover.”
Engaged employees drive higher profits and help reduce costs.”
So you want your employees to be more engaged, right? Statistics don’t lie, and there’s a reason “engagement” is the new buzzword. After all, if everyone’s talking about it, they must be on to something.
Eventually, we’ll figure out that employee engagement is the new change management. It has a murky definition, one that morphs in accordance with the interests of those promoting it. The statistics, as a result, are borderline useless, and the more they are repeated, the more empty they become. Just like the “70% of change initiatives fail” figure that’s been floated without questioning since the 1990s, the “truth” that employee engagement is the “magic bullet” to fix all ills is gaining widespread acceptance while escaping critical examination.
On the surface, it’s hard to argue that an employee who’s engaged will perform better than one who is not. The devil, as usual, is in the details—specifically, what does “engagement” even mean? How far does someone have to get into her job to be considered engaged, and what are the alternatives? Is it enough for her to show up for work and perform her tasks accurately and completely, or does she have to have some metaphysical connection to her role and to the organization? It seems that every person who uses the term has his own definition.
It gets worse when stock employee engagement surveys are used. These presume that engagement is a one-size-fits-all concept, meaning the same thing at one organization as it does every other. For all of the similarities we can find across organizations, though, sectors, industries, and individual entities have their own peculiarities. Does the individual manufacturing widgets need to be intimately familiar with the mission, for example, as would benefit the person running operations in a non-profit, or is following quality control procedures enough?
Moreover, it would seem to make sense that what engagement means to one employee may differ from what drives another. What causes a millennial to meet some mercurial standard of engagement is likely not the same as what keeps the gray-haired, old-school, long-tenured professional enthused, involved, connected, motivated, or whatever the term actually means. This is another reason that employee engagement is a shallow concept—it makes for a great sound bite, but under the covers there’s not enough to provide much direction.
Instead of obsessing over the mystical idea of engagement and striving for some state of affairs that may or not make sense for your organization and workforce, you should focus squarely on what you want, who is most likely to provide it, and how to ensure that they do. In other words, step away from stock measures of employee engagement, and stop trying to be everything to everyone. It’s better to define what you want your employees to do and how you want them to act, and ensure they get what they need to do it. This means:
  • Getting what you need—Defining requirements (“what”), designing appropriate jobs (“how”), determining the characteristics, experience, etc. that are likely to lead to success (“who”), and finding them (“where”).
  • Giving them what they need—Understanding what encourages the behaviors you want—e.g., equipment, incentives, facilities, work environment, opportunities, relationships—and ensuring it’s all in place.
  • Following through—Delivering on promises, and weeding out the low performers. If you’ve defined what you need and provided the enablers, performance is your indicator, not “free coffee, please” surveys.
Of course, this is all well and good for bringing in the “right” new hires, but what of your existing employees? What if they don’t have what you’ve identified as the necessary attributes? Actually, the same principles apply. You can only adapt behaviors when you know specifically what behaviors you want, and how to encourage them. That necessitates knowing what you want people to deliver and how, providing the tools, and assessing performance on actual performance—making the hard personnel decisions when they’re required.
Attempting to fix problems by retroactively attempting to meet some universal-yet-under-defined standard of employee engagement is a losing proposition. More than likely, you’ll be sent in directions you don’t need to go, and you’ll be spending money you don’t need to spend. You can design a qualified, motivated workforce based on your standards and objectives. If you do it right, set up the foundation, and hire effectively, you’ll get the most out of your employees—no matter how engaged someone else’s survey says they are.

Tom Morley has 18 years of experience as an internal and external consultant helping clients in all sectors, across industries, in the US and abroad, to become sustainably cost-effective and achieve their visions.  Formerly with BearingPoint and Deloitte Consulting, his areas of expertise include organization strategies, human capital management, and change acceptance and adoption.  His clients range from small, local concerns to international, multi-lateral institutions, and he has advised leaders and managers of more than 50 organizations to help them realize their goals over the course of his career.

For more information or to discuss your hiring needs, contact Snowflake. Mention this blog and we’ll give you a free, one-hour consultation to get you headed in the right direction!