A New Year’s Wish List for Employee Engagement Professionals

As the year draws to a close I find myself harboring deep concerns for the future of the employee engagement dialogue. Rather than continue to stew silently I’ve decided to come clean and reveal what I have been thinking about and my hopes for the future.

 In many cases I view the path being pursued by employee engagement professionals as the perpetuation of bankrupt paradigms of management by simply painting them with a new vocabulary.

  • It is high time that professionals in the field of employee engagement accept that “engagement” ,like love and life, is an inside job and will only respond in a limited fashion to external manipulation.

If “engagement” is ever to have any power it needs to be understood as an ontological tool ( Engagement = Association by Choice), a matter of declaration,  and not an emotional/psychological response to external factors that can be measured uniformly by some sort of survey instrument. I firmly believe that much of what has passed for the measurements of engagement in recent years are in part measures of interest (Q12 etc.) and a perception of mutual benefit and as such perpetuate the carrot/stick management models of the past 100+ years. “Interest” is like sexual attraction, it waxes and wanes and is fundamentally a response to external stimuli. Employees are likely better served by being brought to consciousness about their talents and strengths (their gifts)  and provided information about where in the workplace those are likely to be welcomed and invited to be offered. They could then be encouraged to plan careers in those directions rather than being surveyed and scored according to some normative instrument.

  • One of the fastest ways to poison any employee engagement initiatives is to tie managers’ compensation to survey scores.

What could be more “stick-like” in terms of classic management science than to put someone’s survey scores on anything squarely at the center of your own person’s financial well being? I’ve seen customer service reps. “ask for the A” on client surveys; what do we think managers will do when placed under similar pressure? Stop it, just stop it!

  • Can we all consider that the Work/Life Balance concern is and always has been a bogus issue and another indication of our archetypal fear that management is BAD and employees are GOOD.

Work/Life balance from the perspective of management = respect people’s private lives and honor the commitments they make there as equal to any fear you have about not meeting your objectives. Dear Manager: Don’t justify your need by suggesting that anyone’s employment is in jeopardy.

Work/Life balance from the employee perspective = I don’t care of you want to work 80 hours a week, don’t expect me to do the same and just make sure you are keeping the other commitments in your life. Who am I to say that you should have a hobby or spend more time with your family? Oh yes, and if you have a commitment to your family and get asked to work on the weekend get a spine and tell your manager “No” or negotiate responsibly with your family and don’t blame your boss.

It turns out that some recent research indicates that, as I have suspected, the issue may just be a bogey person anyway.  A Management Craft post on December 11, 2010 by Lisa Haneberg cites a new study published in the Journal of Management and Organization, “Work–life balance or work–life alignment? A test of the important of work-life balance for employee engagement and intention to stay in organizations.”

  • Finally, for now, and probably most importantly make peace with your fondest desire; that someday organizations may really be operated from an authentic concern for employee engagement.

While I wish he had written about it much earlier Peter Block did recently get around to addressing the flawed thinking that suggests that employers should be held to account in any way for employee engagement. In ‘The Abundant Community’ published in 2010 and co-authored with John McKnight we find these words addressing the notion that the systematic development of for-profit organizations can in any way be expected to deliver anything other than an economic outcome;

  • “Here is the rub: Systems that are constructed for order and predictability cannot provide satisfaction in domains that require a unique and personal human solution.”

 The simple fact of the diversity of humanity in terms of intelligences, talents, visions, desires and on and on would indicate, at least to me, that our measures of  engagement are here further suspect as reveled by this perspective. As with interest and perceived mutual benefit we may also have been measuring the level of tolerance employees have developed for the degree of “institutionalization” they are subjected to each day. The less “institutionalization” the higher the survey score.

 ‘Just for fun, imagine operating from the premise that no one has ever made you angry, or afraid, or happy, or joyful–that you’ve done it all yourself by what you’ve decided is “real”. What if life were entirely an inside job?’

Check out Steve Roberts and his full collections of pen and ink sketches at CoolMindWarmHeart.com 


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