Employee engagement is the Holy Grail we internal communicators seek to deliver. Engaged employees are “fully involved in and enthusiastic about their work” (Wikipedia). They “…act in a way that furthers their organisations interests” (ibid) thus boosting productivity and profitability.
Despite the undoubted desirability of the outcome, how much commitment do business leaders show to the fundamental changes needed to achieve such engagement? Not much.
In “The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness” Stephen Covey shows the gap between ambition and reality. “The mind-set of the Industrial Age that still dominates today’s workplace will simply not work in the Knowledge Worker Age and the new economy”. In other words, many of today’s management practices originate from an era where workers expected to be managed and staff motivation was limited to either the carrot of more pay or the stick of reprisal.
In the Industrial Era it was normal to manage people as things. Doing that today is, Covey says, insulting and alienating, and creates low trust and litigious cultures. So why are many supposedly enlightened companies still doing it?
Covey quotes John Gardner, “most ailing organisations have developed a functional blindness to their own defects. They are not suffering because they cannot resolve their problems, but because they cannot see their problems.” He also references Einstein: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”
So, although employee engagement isn’t a ‘problem to be solved’ per se, it seems business leaders may be blind to the steps needed to realise true engagement. They don’t see that it would take radical change, not just in how they treat their employees, but how they perceive them.
How do you engage a workforce that is more cynical, more fragmented and more capable of exposing inequity than ever before?
One way not to do it is the performance assessment system of “stack ranking” – a programme that forces every manager to split their team into assigned quotas of top performers, good performers, average, and poor – into what is, traditionally, a bell curve of performance. No matter how good everyone is, x number of the team get great reviews, y number get mediocre reviews, and z number get terrible reviews. Inevitably this leads to employees focusing on competing with each other, with the smartest realising that conquering the organisational politics is more important than actual performance and the best guarantee of success is to surround yourself with less able colleagues.
I asked an HR colleague to justify the use of such a seemingly flawed and widely discredited system. She said that it could still be used to fulfil its original purpose of promoting a culture of high performance by moving from a performance bell curve to a ‘funnel’, where the majority of the team can hope to be assessed as high performers. The weakness of this model has most recently been demonstrated by the UK schools’ exam system, where the awarding of too many top grades devalued the entire system.
Employee engagement needs the opposite of treating people as ‘things’ and will not be inspired by the imposition of a centrally dictated performance framework. The fragmented nature of today’s workforce and our modern appreciation of the complexity of individual motivation tell us that employees will only engage when the organisation invokes their personal values.
Until the leadership understands that employee engagement is about individuals and acts accordingly, they will continue to be seen as paying only hypocritical lip service to the principle.