Has Employee Engagement Failed?

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Over the last decade, no management idea has gained more attention than employee engagement. Fueled by Gallup research, there's been a mania about "EE" that has many companies investing millions in improving it with the end of improving productivity. Yet, the results are questionable. Here are some things to consider about your employee engagement program, whether you are thinking about starting one, or maybe, thinking about aborting your efforts.

Employee Engagement Hasn't Improved

Despite the investment of millions, the research suggests that employee engagement hasn't improved over the years. That may mean that:

  • employee engagement levels aren't determined as much by what the company does than by what employees bring in the first place.
  • employees resist having their engagement levels "manipulated" by the company when it's clear that the company's motives are profit driven.

No Evidence That Employee Engagement CAUSES Improved Productivity

While there's a lot of research that shows a correlation between employee engagement and various business indicators, like share price and productivity, there is virtually NO evidence at all that EE CAUSES those things. In fact, it's likely that EE and productivity DO go together but one doesn't cause the other, but both are caused by other things in the environment.

Counter-Intuitive Evidence That Most Productive Staff May NOT Be Engaged

Recent research suggests that some of the most productive employees are not the most engaged. The most likely explanation is that many productive employees do their jobs very well, but are less interested in standing out, or going the extra mile. Employees can be excellent performers without being considered engaged.

Employees Don't Want To Be More Engaged -- Just To Be Good Employees

These days, employees want to separate their jobs, from who they are. Some want to go above and beyond the requirements, (ie. put in extra time, show loyalty), but many others want a wall between what really turns them on, and their work. For some it's one and the same. They end up classified as "engaged". For many others, they want to show up, do a great job and take pride in their work, and then go home. Work is important, but other things are also important.

Employee Engagement Complicates Organizational Improvement

Employee engagement complicates our thinking about the link between management and leadership BEHAVIOR and business outcomes by interspersing a third element between the two. It's easy to focus on the third element, and lose sight of the point -- business outcomes. In fact, the best ways to influence business outcomes is to focus on business outcomes, and not something else. We could well simpify the whole thing, and stay focused by doing the things within a company -- i..e good management and leadership, and NEVER even mention EE.

Employee Engagement "Programs" Engender A Cynical Backlash

Employees are tired of the flavor of the month programs that they have seen come and go over the years. There's a cynicism about employee engagement, and there's a sense that it's just one more way of trying to get employees to work harder, without rewarding them for more productivity. It's the old "I've heard it all before", thing or "Here we go again". It doesn't help that the very term sounds like a faddish buzzword.

On The Other Hand...

The one thing that EE has done is shine a spotlight on the importance of organizational climate, and how important leadership and manager behavior is to the organization. That's a good thing. However, it may be that it's time to put this concept to bed. It hasn't worked.


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Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992 by consultant and book author, Robert Bacal. Robert's books on performance management and reviews have been published by McGraw-Hill. He is available for consultation, training and keynote speaking on performance and management at work.


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