Employee Engagement: Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

The 2011 engagement numbers  are coming in and it appears that they are unchanged from when the term “employee engagement” was put forth in the early 1990s. The Towers Perrin Global Workforce study showed that only 21 percent are engaged, while BlessingWhite’s survey found 31 percent. Googling “employee engagement” yields 6,220,000 hits. To paraphrase Shakespeare, most of what you will find there is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

With all the work that has been done on this topic during the last 20 years, why have the numbers not moved? Could it be that the current approaches for addressing the problem, and there are many, are missing the mark? In my opinion the answer is “Yes.”

The approaches are typified in a free e-book produced by David Zinger titled, The Keys of Employee Engagement. Twelve contributors presented 26 keys (A-Z) with little overlap. They presented more than 300 ideas. With all due respect, it is clear that they made them up. By that I mean they were not scientifically derived but came from the contributors’ experiences. It is my belief that we must move beyond personal experience to demonstrating scientifically validated practices that work wherever work is done.

Many of the articles available on the Web try to increase engagement by training supervisors and even front-line employees in how to be more engaged. The idea behind Zinger’s book is to give people ideas to try, suggesting that with the right engagement techniques the problem will be solved. In the book Measure of a Leader, my co-author and I state that “the measure of a leader is the behavior of the followers.” If employees are not engaged, it is a leadership problem, nothing more, nothing less. If employees are not engaged it is a reflection of management behaviors, policies and procedures. Without change at this level it is akin to the saying made popular by Sarah Palin, “Putting lipstick on a pig.” The lipstick eventually wears off and the pig is as ugly as before. Major surgery will be required for substantial and lasting improvement.

Contrary to popular opinion, the workplace creates a lack of engagement. It is not about attitude, communication, commitment or flow. While some employees seem to be unaffected by the way business is conducted, even they can eventually be worn down to the point that they give little or no discretionary effort – doing only their job and little more.

To have a more practical and effective solution to the problem of employee engagement, I recommend changing from EE to ER – not emergency room but employee reinforcement. Engagement is about how to get people to willingly do everything in their power to move the organization forward at a rapid pace. There is only one way to do that – with positive reinforcement. The research demonstrates that with literally hundreds of studies. While the average manager understands that at a common-sense level, it is not well implemented in policies, procedures and management behaviors. Reinforce at the wrong time, for the wrong behavior, in the wrong way or at the wrong frequency and you get not an energized, engaged employee but just the opposite.

By the way, what is the difference in employee reinforcement, culture change and participative management? The answer is that they all have the same outcome – a workplace that creates discretionary effort in everyone every day. How do you get that? With effective positive reinforcement built into management systems, policies and management practices. I’m afraid, until that is understood and effectively implemented, 2012 and beyond will yield the same dismal employee engagement results.