As I continue to think and ponder on the challenge of developing an engaging workplace it occurred to me recently that I have been operating with a simple but crucial assumption that I think needs to be looked at closely. Here is the simple, maybe simple minded assumption; employees universally are consciously seeking an engaging place to work.
I think you’d agree that this is pretty basic and also pretty much assumed by anyone involved in employee engagement either internal or external (consultants) to an organization. When I first noticed the assumption I was quick to look around to make sure no one saw me asking myself the question; I mean, how silly and sacrilegious at the same time. Of course employees are consciously seeking an engaging workplace…aren’t they?
Once you allow yourself to ask this question it provides a window into a world where things are maybe not as cut and dried as we have been making them out to be, especially when it comes to employee engagement. ESPECIALLY when you look at the amount of money being spent on employee engagement, as I did here back in July and when you see how little employers seem to be getting in return for their investment. The results seem “especially” grim.
Oh dear! What if employees are not really seeking an engaging workplace after all? But we need engaged employees, the research tells us that we do if we want to be elite. And we are spending all this money!
OK, let’s slow down and think this through for a moment. If you ask me what I really think it is this; employees may not consciously want or seek an engaged workplace but unconsciously, yes they are. They will be responsive in the presence of environment that truly values their contribution. Is this double-speak? If you review what I said it contains a code for truly communicating to employees that their engagement is welcomed and necessary.
I’ll assert that employers on the whole have done a pretty good job of making the case that employees are resources, human resources to be sure but nonetheless resources, to be replaced like machine parts at management’s discretion. Never mind the motive for replacement; it could be healthy triage or convenient action to preserve profits and earnings. The message to employees is still the same, “You cannot afford to get too invested in your employment because it is a temporary arrangement.” This may in fact not be true of your company but the experiential message is so prevalent in today’s broader workforce that employees have learned to work in a “trustless atmosphere.” This is to say that there is tremendous opportunity for employers that understand that it may be the absence of trust that most accounts for surprisingly low engagement scores.
That code I mentioned… So let’s say that trust is the foundation for engagement and without it everything else is pretty much going through the motions. Despite all the efforts your organization is taking how would it rate if held up to a trust meter? And remember, today’s employees can smell fake trust through layers of recognition programs.
Some pretty interesting research has been conducted in the labs headed by Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of The Moral Molecule. I won’t bother you with the chemistry involved; you can read about that in Zak’s book. What I will do is make clear that Zak’s research has made plain that organizations that are people-centered and managed by clear objectives are the best places to work and, over time, enjoy the most success.
To this bit of information you will rightly respond…duh! But let me be quick to add that there is more to this information than the logical mind might apprehend. This phrase is where the mischief begins…
This fact about organizations has been known for many years and reinforced by many studies. So what companies have been doing, often with the encouragement of consultants, is imitate the actions of organizations that are really people centered without being organizations that are people centered. Hoping to elicit employee engagement without the necessary condition. The emphasis must be on BEING. Most companies still account for employees primarily as expense and see them as resources.
In another of the pieces I read authored by Paul Zak he quotes Bob Chapman the CEO of Barry-Wehmiller a privately held company that owns more than 50 manufacturing operations on five continents and generates more than $1 billion in annual revenue. Chapman states that “Building Great People is our Mission.” I’d invite you to visit their home page; it is unlike any I have ever seen. Theirs is an example of a company BEING people centered. Based on Zak’s research this type of environment engenders trust and employees naturally pull for the organization’s success.
What is there to do, maybe nothing if you are satisfied with your current levels of employee engagement. Or maybe something! You need to answer this for yourself.