Now Focus On Human Needs Because Employee Engagement Has Failed

This post originally appeared on Forbes.

According to Gallup and other human resource-oriented surveys, employee engagement scores haven’t changed significantly in two decades, and if anything, they’re heading in the wrong direction. That makes sense, says Dan Pontefract, leadership strategist and author of Work-Life Bloom: How to Nurture a Team That Flourishes, because businesses are trying to evaluate the wrong thing.

In a recent conversation, Pontefract suggests that the corporate emphasis on measuring employee engagement sets up unrealistic expectations because it’s impossible for everyone to be engaged all—or even most—of the time. His premise is that humans grow the way a garden grows, with periods of blooming, budding, stuntedness or renewal, and that the way leaders support employees and bring out their best is analogous to how a thoughtful gardener cares for—and benefits from—the garden.

Pontefract is indignant about what he sees as business’s misfocused emphasis on work-life balance and employee engagement, which don’t have real value for employees themselves. He emphasizes that people can’t divide themselves into a work self and a life self because work is part of life—particularly now, when many people work and live in the same space. Even worse, people at all levels often receive messages about work at all hours and have to think about it even when they’re not technically working.

What’s Wrong With The Way We’re Doing It Now

Pontefract expresses frustration that “work-life balance hasn’t improved. Anxiety is up. Stress is up. Obesity is up. Loneliness is up. Anger is up.” Although businesses may espouse work-life balance, most neither structure work in ways that support that balance nor support the “life” part of the equation.

It’s not helpful for people to see the results of an employee engagement survey and learn that as a group, they’re only 38% engaged, for example, or that they’re “chronically disengaged,” says Pontefract. These measures are used as a surrogate for corporate success and don’t actually represent the well-being of individuals, so they don’t contribute to people feeling better or caring more about work.

According to Pontefract, targeting high engagement numbers is irrelevant because people naturally cycle in and out of engagement based on the actual conditions they experience both at work and in their personal lives. “Work and life intersect,” he explains. “We’re never going to be blooming all the time. Things happen—leaders need to recognize that they’re probably going to have forty percent-ish of their team blooming at any one time. That’s perfectly normal, so let’s get past that. Let’s have open conversations about what’s getting in the way and how can we help you. And because of the cyclical nature of business, people come and go, acquisitions happen, bankruptcy happens, people move, leaders get promoted, things are always changing.”

You Don’t Need 100% Engagement

As life changes, our needs and vantage points change too. Our work role or designation may remain the same, but how we feel about ourselves in that role may shift. It makes sense to “have open, humanistic dialog” to understand exactly how things are going, particularly whenever leaders are aware of shifts in an individual’s work (new responsibilities, schedules, etc.) or in their or their loved ones’ lives.

Pontefract gives the example of an individual contributor who becomes a parent. If there are no other parents on their team, their belief that their needs are understood by their colleagues and their sense of belonging may fade.

So, rather than focusing on a numeric target, he suggests that leaders chat with their people about “whether or not you feel like you’re in need of renewal.” He says that when leaders ask themselves, “How are my people feeling right now about this intersection of work and life? And how might I help them see that it’s okay to not be blooming/engaged?” then they can also “have a conversation about ‘what is it that’s getting in the way of you blooming?’” Once the leader and the team member identify what’s in the way, he notes, “the leader can find a potential path to help unblock that.” The new parent, for example, might need reassurance that they’re doing fine, along with some leeway in scheduling and an introduction to new parents elsewhere in the organization so they can be part of a community of interest.

Focus At The Team Level

The place to do this work is at the small-group or team level, says Pontefract, where a leader can actually get to know their employees well enough to address the 12 crucial work and life factors that are necessary for flourishing, from trust and belonging to relationships and respect. “When leaders pay attention empathically to those work and life factors, they get results,” he explains, “like less stressed team members, less attrition and higher levels of customer feedback and satisfaction.”

When leaders operate in this way, they take on roles that we often think of as mentorship or sponsorship as they try to help their team members make connections and explore alternatives that can pay off in their careers and life trajectories.

Pontefract encourages leaders to do what they can to foster what he calls “‘platonic life skills’—the transferable life skills that make their way into work.” He explains, “It’s not just about ‘Do you have the skills to perform in your job?’ It’s ‘Where do you want to go? Can I help you become that ‘best self’ today, and also the next ‘best self?’”

For instance, he notes, do employees have financial literacy or know how to build relationships? These skills can be as important at work as they are in life—and if corporations are going to live up to their “work-life balance” promises, it’s the development of those kinds of skills that they should be offering their people.

Onward and upward—

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