This is Not the Way to Heart Lake…An Alternative View on Employee Engagement

I live in Anacortes, Washington. Ours is the town where the ferries leave for the San Juan Islands and Victoria, BC. The city is situated on Fidalgo Island and since it isn’t very large, 40 square miles, it is fairly easy to find your way around. One thing that does give visitors and even many of the locals a geographic challenge is keeping straight the names and locations of the Island’s eight fresh water lakes, one of which is Heart Lake, known to be a fine place to catch bass.

If you travel south from 41st Street on O Avenue you’ll find yourself heading to the outer rim of the island. Along the way you’ll pass a hand lettered sign nailed on a telephone pole that my wife and I have dubbed our universal phrase for information which tells you something but not quite enough to be truly useful. Here is what the sign says… “This is not the road to Heart Lake.”

So now we know, O Avenue is not the way to Heart Lake. If we were looking for Heart Lake this information would let us know it is time to stop heading this way. If we were not looking for Heart Lake we can make note for the future.

What we obviously don’t know now is how to find our way to Heart Lake.

My wife and I now use the phrase, “This is not the way to Heart Lake” as shorthand for letting each other know that what one of us may have just communicated to the other does not contain sufficient information to be useful.

“This is not the way To Heart Lake” is how I feel about most of the information gathered about the lingering and apparently low rates of employee engagement across North America. The published studies tell me something but not enough to find what I am looking for. Gallup, the birthplace of employee engagement understanding, just recently issued their 2013 report on employee engagement and without cracking it open you can know this…read any of the reports for the past 10 + years and  you’ll know what this one says. Employee engagement remains at seemingly low levels. Low is of course not as good as high and certain other seemingly related statistics seem to bear that out.

So what do we know for sure? Well, studies have shown that companies that register higher rates of employee engagement also register higher profitability and higher earnings. It doesn’t take a great deal of interpretative ability to then conclude that higher employee engagement seems to correlate with higher profits but certainly not like cause an effect. However, that inference is one being pushed hard by those companies marketing services to improve levels of employee engagement. Since for-profit companies are logically designed to seek higher levels of profitability they would then likely be candidates for ideas and programs that would improve the levels of employee engagement. And that is the way engagement initiatives have been sold to business leaders for over a decade, cause and effect. 

“Look business leaders your employee engagement scores are low and we know companies with higher engagement levels have higher profitability so of course you’ll want to emulate those companies and buy our engagement survey tools and follow up programming.” 

And as recently as 2011, according to Bersin and Associates, employers were spending close to $750 Million annually to improve their engagement scores with projections for this amount to eventually reach $1.5 Billion per year. So I guess the formula for success when it comes to employee engagement goes something like, “If you’ve gotten virtually no change in engagement levels for over 10 years by spending up to $750 Million annually you should be able to double that result by spending twice as much!” Yeah! This is definitely not the road to Heart Lake, but it just might fit this definition of insanity taken from Alcoholics Anonymous, “Doing the same thing over and over expecting a different outcome.” 

I realize this does not paint a very promising picture for employee engagement going forward. However, if, as it appears, we have been on the wrong road as it pertains to employee engagement maybe we’d do ourselves a favor by stopping what we’ve been doing, standing back and observing what happens naturally for a while. Employee engagement may have been a red herring all along and I suspect the droids we are looking for will appear from the mist of talent management as we get better at it

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