The End of Employee Engagement? I Think Not

by Kevin Sheridan on Jun 10, 2015 8:00:00 AM

This post comes to us from Kevin Sheridan, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today best-selling author of Building A Magnetic CultureKevin’s newest product, PEER®, is consistently recognized as a long overdue, industry-changing innovation in the field of Employee Engagement.

Optimized-EndofEngagementRopePhotoA couple of days ago, there was an article in Forbes asserting that the Employee Engagement Movement was dying on the vine or fading away, like the Total Quality Movement (TQM) of the late 1980s and early 1990s.  

In my opinion, there are several flaws in what the article suggested. 

First and foremost, the big “elephant in the room” is the fact that, by most measures, only about 30% of the workforce is engaged, with the remainder being either ambivalent or actively disengaged. Are we to roll down our sleeves and think this is an acceptable level of engagement for our businesses, industries, and countries, and give up that easily? I hope not. Literally all of the best-in-class customers with whom I have worked in my 30-year consulting career eschewed such a defeatist attitude and rolled up their sleeves to work harder to become even better. (Sounds a little like TQM, huh?) These organizations never lost their undying commitment to the well-defined concept of engagement and its core underpinnings.

Second, regardless of what engagement is called, those people that have it never lose their passion for what they do and pride in where they work. These two “Ps” of engagement will always yield superior outcomes, such as net-promoter results, customer referrals, customer satisfaction, higher quality and safety scores, and profitability. Regardless of whether we get tired of the moniker “employee engagement,” the myriad positive outcomes it creates will never go away. (Read the most comprehensive summary of these business outcomes.)

Third, if, as suggested in the article, engagement has become a “check-the-box” exercise, then why are we not holding the people checking the box accountable, as well as those accepting the checked boxes, as opposed to conveniently blaming engagement?

Lastly, a much healthier, opportunistic approach to engagement has played out in the hundreds of organizations I’ve helped shepherd from the nadir of engagement to best-in-class status. All of these world-class employers took the following steps, which are not typically taken by those stuck at “average”:

  • They never gave up but rather made a long-term commitment to real change and improvement.
  • They had CEOs who eagerly took ownership for leading the effort and expected others to own it with the same level of steadfast dedication.
  • They tailored both their measurement instrument and process to fit the demographic makeup of their workforce, as opposed to using a “one-size fits all” survey and solution.
  • Contrary to what the article purports, the vast majority of companies and the engagement vendors they choose give and actually guarantee complete confidentiality for their survey and process. Best-in-class organizations on engagement are no different.
  • They instilled complete accountability on their managers for ensuring meaningful action plans are not only implemented but effectively communicated, such that all employees knew that they were heard and that meaningful changes had been made based on their opinions. They encouraged employees to begin to accept ownership for their own engagement, as opposed to waiting to be engaged by their manager and/or employer. 
  • They gave their employees a tool through which they could confidentially see how engaged they were in their job, as well as get suggestions on what they could do on their own to be more engaged. 

All of these steps are important, but the final two are critical to long-term improvement. Given that the vast majority of organizations have yet to take these two critical steps, it is certainly no time to throw in the towel and give up on engagement.

The proudest moments of my career as a consultant in this area were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with senior executives who announced double-digit or best-in-class scores on engagement survey results and asked their entire team to stand up and give themselves a thunderously loud standing ovation. Nearly all of the ovations ended with the CEO saying something like, “This is great, but we are not done yet.  Let’s set a goal to be in the top 3% next year.” 

Rest assured, William Edwards Deming’s concepts on quality, continuous quality improvement, and the Malcolm Baldrige Award are all alive and well today. The term TQM may no longer be bandied about, but its foundation pillars still stand as tall as those for engagement.

 

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This post was written by Kevin Sheridan

Kevin Sheridan has spent thirty years as a high-level Human Capital Management consultant. He has helped some of the world’s largest corporations break down detrimental processes and rebuild a culture that fosters productive engagement, earning him several distinctive awards and honors in the process. Kevin’s newest product, PEER®, is consistently recognized as a long overdue, industry-changing innovation in the field of Employee Engagement, and his most recent book, “Building a Magnetic Culture,” made the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today best-seller lists.

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