Employee engagement has a ring to it

Jan 20 2008 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

The New Year is young and already there is a trend (a lesser man would say fad, but look around these pages, you can't find a lesser man than yours truly) emerging in the management development field.

I've commented on it in The Working Week podcast, as well as the latest Cranky Middle Manager Show. That trend / fad / buzzword / obsession-du-jour is employee engagement.

We've all seen the figures from any number of studies. Less than a third of our employees are "actively engaged" - meaning many things but basically they give a hoot and work hard - about half are "neutrally engaged" - meaning they're slogging through their day getting the job done at an acceptable level but not doing a bit more than they have to.

The rest are "actively disengaged". This could mean anything from bone laziness to active sabotage. Whatever the definition it's a problem for both parties.

The thing that bothers me most, I think, is the word "engagement". My old man used to call it "Honest day's work for an honest day's wage" or on his worst days "Act like you give a damn."

When I think of engagement I think of a smiling couple, shiny rings and promises of a bright future together while everyone smiles and thinks "I'll give it three years". Come to think of it, that's not that different from hiring employees. The parallels are fairly chilling:

Before you find "The One", you have to kiss a lot of frogs: This one is obvious. There isn't a worker not looking for the perfect boss or a hiring manager out there who hasn't despaired of finding the perfect employee, or had to settle for less than ideal until the right one comes along - knowing that it won't work out but it's better than leaving a job unfilled (or without a date for New Year's Eve).

In fact if you hear HR people bemoaning the lack of good applicants, substitute "men" for "candidates" and it sounds like an episode of Sex and the City. The person who gets that first job and stays with that company for their whole career is as rare as - well I won't belabor the point.

There is a significant financial investment up front: DeBeers will tell you a man should spend five month's salary on his beloved's engagement ring. (My wife concurs but she's just bitter. Her engagement ring cost about two shifts worth of wages but that's another story). Most companies are willing to invest in a 90 day "probation" period . By the way, the bigger the ring, the more impressed they'll be.

Nothing happens without that ring: okay that's just what I tell my daughter but the fact is an employer wouldn't expect an employee to work without some kind of commitment on their part and if you accept that ring (or salary) there are expectations on you as an employee. Your mother may have spoken to you about those responsibilities….

We go in thinking it will last forever: yet over half of marriages in Europe and North America end in divorce. (The more cynical among us will say that means the rest end in Death but why spoil the moment)

If it's going to work it will take a lot of commitment on both parts: here's where the gurus, pundits and Cassandras have to take a deep breath. Just as an employee can't expect a company to take care of them if they don't put in a good day's work for a day's pay, or promote them if they don't exert the effort and commitment, the company has a huge role to play.

Expecting employees to "give 110 %" all the time (which is an impossibility which tells me that number comes from the same department that sets sales quotas) often really means "we expect them to work their tails off until we can ship the job to Romania".

By the way, saying "They should be lucky to just have a job" is the equivalent of "Why are you leaving…I've been a good provider"

Even if it starts great, you can't take it for granted: Managers need to keep checking in with their employees… how are things going…. Is this what you expected….. Don't ignore your long-time employees for the newest star you've hired… what can we do to keep things fresh… (the fact that most corporate training involves role plays only solidifies that analogy but we won't go there either).

It's a two-way street: if only one party is working at it, it's doomed

Employees and employers both need to remember something someone told me about engagements - get on one knee to ask and both knees to thank them for staying.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.

Older Comments

Hello Wayne. For me, employment and relatonships often experience 'engagement' evaporating because one's 'heart' isn' in it, or wasn't, from the get-go. Many enter into employment, and relationships, with a laser-like focus on the 'packaging.'

A recent study indicated that one defined 'soul-mate' as a person who had a sense of humor.......and drove a silver Mercedes. Hmmm.

So, where is the 'heart' that, for me, drives engagement? When we say a person's 'heart isn't in it' or is attending to one's job or committed to one's love relastionship in a 'half-hearted' way, the curiosity is often whether the heart was involved at the start or did one enter into the employment or love relationship blinded by the packaging.

And the notion of keeping it fresh is spot on. The key is to be curious about and reflect on how one can come to one's work and one's relationship, every day, as though it were the first day...with no history, no stories to contaminate the quality of the engagement.

Perhaps the size of the ring is in indirect proportion to the quality of heart involved in the intentionality, and 'consciousness' underlying the employment or love relationship.

peter vajda

Here;s just a thought about 'engagement': it seems that whoever in the engagement has the most to lose will work the hardest to see that the relationship doesn't end. In business this means that if the employee is working for a successful company and can see herself 'climbing the ladder' in this company, then she will work hard, or at least work hard at appearing engaged. In this case, though, the company's success (at least in part) drives the employee to be engaged (thus contradicting the myth that engaged employees drive firm success). Likewise, if the firm has the most to lose, they will work hard to retain and engage the star employee. Of course, if the firm has more to lose than it is easy to assume that the employee is already highly productive - otherwise why would the firm care if that employee left. In this case, the employee is already highly productive, so working to make her more engaged likely won't increase her productivity (again contradicting the myth that engagement drives firm success). These are just two thought experiments. Certainly someone could likewise think of a logical explanation of why engagement might drive firm performance. But if you buy the two ideas above as plausible, it should be enough to give hesitation whenever some consultant comes running in to tell you how they can improve your employees' engagement. You have to ask yourself whether this really is the lever to pull.

Chris NYC

'Engagement', while it is viewed as another fad for managers to 'do' to the workforce will fail in the same way that all other management fads that are driven down to the workforce have failed in the past. It will fail not because it is the wrong thing to do or because there is something wrong with the concept. It will fail because people are being told to do it, and the thing we really don't like is being told what to do.

If however we recognise that engagement is not a fad but is the product of a change in the way that the workforce are managed then we will stop chasing it as a deliverable and focus on the management behaviour that currently prevents it from occurring.

People want to be engaged, it is what their managers do to them that prevents them from engaging.

Peter A Hunter

Peter A Hunter Cranfield, England.

Peter Hunter is absolutely correct.

The level of workforce engagement is actually chosen, consciously or unconsciously, by management. Management by its actions actually dictates this level and it can range from about 5% to 85% or so in my experience, 30 years of managing people.

Employees all want to be engaged in everything they do whether it is their personal life or their life at work. In the workplace, about 95% of employees will treat their work as they are treated by management. So it is management's choice.

Management can treat them with great disrespect by using a top-down command and control system. This system naturally demeans, disrespects and demotivates employees. In this case, very poor performance will be the norm and management will be very critical of their workforce.

Conversely, management can treat employees with great respect by listening to them and giving them what they need to do a better job. In case you are thinking that this is some sort of touchy-feely program, treating employees with great respect includes not only listening to them but also using disciplinary methods to make sure that slackers and misfits are not allowed to shift their workload onto others.

Of course, management can choose to operate somewhere in between the two extremes to the detriment of the company and their employees. The difference between the two extremes is on the order of 500% productivity per person. I admit that difference might be considered by some not worth the effort to change. Actually, any boss in the chain can choose to treat his/her employees with great respect and thus experience significant performance gain even though upper management does not cooperate in the effort.

Best regards, Ben Author 'Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed'

Ben Simonton