The New Definition of Insanity…Expecting Employee Engagement to Improve

In 1980 I was working for one of the largest petroleum companies in the world, top 10 in the Fortune 500. The money was good, the benefits ridiculously generous, actually terribly addictive if you were being honest about it. I had a nice office, my manager was a truly swell fellow, I was on a medium fast track for promotion as long as I was willing to move around the country or world…and I was not engaged. So I left!

It wasn’t really quite that simple of course. I went through about three years of trying to make the best of it, wondering why the company wasn’t a more exciting place to work, thinking that we didn’t try hard enough to be a great company. The profits came too easily I surmised. And then, in a moment of clarity, I realized that the only thing that was really true about my situation was that I, me, myself, was not engaged in the work that the company had to offer me. I was good at it, even outstanding in some regards, and not engaged. Drat! I was really hoping that it would not turn out to be up to me. Did I mention that the benefits were amazing?

In 2012 employers, according to Bersin & Associates, spent over $720 million on employee engagement and they are projecting that this number will eventually rise to $1.5 billion. What are employers getting for this investment? Mostly not much, if you accept the findings in the most recent Gallup report, “State of the American Workplace”. In fact the statistics on the level of employee engagement have virtually remained flat with about 30% of employees reporting full engagement since I can recall reading the initial Gallup reports back in the late 1990’s. So the percentage of engaged employees has not improved at all in the past fifteen years…and it is still being reported like it is news!

 Maybe the news should be something like…

  • Consulting industry continues to con employers into feeling bad about levels of employee engagement!
  • Employers willing to continue to spend millions on something they have little or no control over!
  • 70% of American workers remain willing to put up with employment not worth the time of their lives!
  • Longitudinal study shows levels of employee engagement in the last decade at all time highs!
  • Employers willing to spend lots of money and get nothing for it!

And I could go on but I won’t.

Will this situation ever change appreciably? The first studies on employee engagement that I have been able to find were done on in the early 1990’s by William A. Kahn at Boston University. In the conclusion of his study Kahn states…

“I deliberately included a wide range of factors in the model, taking seriously the multiple levels of influences – individual, interpersonal, group, intergroup and organizational – that shape people’s personal engagements and disengagements. It is at the swirling intersection of those influences that individuals make choices, at different levels of awareness, to employ and express or withdraw and defend themselves during role performance…” (Italics added)

Employers might do themselves a favor before continuing to spend money on engagement initiatives by reading Kahn’s study if for no other reason than to realize that no amount of spend or energy is likely to dramatically affect employee engagement. That is until they begin to recognize that employee engagement as it is currently being measured puts the burden for engagement on the employer and leaves the employee to report whether or not they are happy with the situation. Employees must step up to recognize that their employer is not in the engagement business, that they also have a role to play but that theirs is not sole proprietorship of all things engaging.

As Kahn points out, it is at the “swirling intersection” of many factors that employees make choices to employ or withdraw and employers cannot realistically be expected to manage traffic through each employee’s unique patterns of influence.

Currently employee engagement is being gauged mainly as some measurable degree of emotional attachment to the work, to their colleagues and to the organization. Personally I prefer to define, if not measure employee engagement as the degree of association by choice on the part of employees. Are they getting out of bed each workday and heading in to engage in something that by their own definition is worth the time of their lives? If the answer to that question is yes then developing in employees the skills to negotiate for what they need to stay at the highest levels of engagement would be a worthwhile investment to make. If employees are at their place of work for any reason other than pure choice, such as need or fear, then employers have limited access to participating in elevating the scores on engagement. They do not have partners in the process.

So what about me? As I said earlier, I left my big oil company back in 1980. For a year I worked as a volunteer for a not-for-profit. Then I joined a start up and helped it become a functioning business. In 1987 I started my own business, a consulting practice designed to take suffering out of the workplace. I operated that business with partners until 2011 with as many as fifteen employees. We made money and we lost money along the way. Now I operate as a sole practitioner and sometimes faculty at a local university, doing what I can to help MBA students develop an understanding of their role in being engaged in the workplace.

I’ve managed to earn enough to put three children through college without taking out loans, bought homes and cars and finally moved to live in a place that many would envy for its natural beauty. Had I stayed with big oil, my stock portfolio would be worth an incredible amount. But who am I kidding; I would have been fired long ago. 

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