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Jim Now

Why Employee Engagement Will Continue to Go Nowhere

Management, especially American managements, have an ongoing struggle and sense of disappointment about their ability to engage employees effectively, in the organization’s business, culture, issues, and progress. What triggered my commenting on this essentially dead-end idea was a review of a PWC study, “Evolving An Engaging Work Experience, Building Foundations And Creating Distinction.” It’s about employee engagement, and it is a prime example of why this idea goes and is going nowhere. Management wants to go there, but employees don’t and don’t get it.

Let’s back up. The reason American management has such difficulty with employees is that by declaring themselves scientists, this was actually done by academicians in business schools. About 35 years ago, and meaning it, business leaders, managers, and supervisors became so busy, busy, busy counting, metricizing, and measuring everything. They forced everyone else to do the same. Anything that did not fit into these boxes was declared obstructive, distractive, and irrational. Anything in these categories was to be avoided, excluded, ignored and eradicated. American businesses and organizations, in particular, have been quite successful at this. After well over a quarter century, the process has produced a dehumanized, emotionally negative, unhappy and mindless work experience.

The PWC report contains thousands of words, lots of numbers, charts and graphs, all focused on the things they believe management expects. But not a single one of the metrics is related to having happier employees, or better places to work. Even the metrics about such practical topics as, “work experience obstacles,” are driven by building huge lists of things that can negatively affect employees yet there is no table of employee suggestions for having a satisfactory work day – from the employee’s perspective. One such workplace barriers list has about 40 items. It’s a wonder anyone gets anything done. Employees look at stuff like this and wonder, “There they go again. What are they doing up there?” These are the same questions different consultants ask us about every three years. The list never changes, the same obstacles still obstruct.

The second thing that triggered my comment on employee engagement is a list of company benefits that crossed my desk from a local placement firm here in the Twin Cities. Their list of benefits appears next. The list is positioned as the “must haves” to be included in a truly competitive job offer and position. 91 benefits are listed. Yet, not a single benefit on the list encourages, predicts, or facilitates the expectation of employee engagement. If anything, it promotes the opposite, it’s a checklist of wants and entitlements which once obtained, no longer figure into the actual performance by employees.

Bucket List of Benefits and Perks

  • Assistance with continuing education courses
  • Assistance with student loan debt
  • Birthday off
  • **Biz class seat for 3 hours+ flight
  • Casual dress policy
  • **Charitable matching contribution
  • Childcare
  • *COBRA (need 20+ employees)
  • Clothing allowance
  • Commutation assistance
  • **Commuter card
  • Company credit card
  • Company smartphone or laptop
  • **Country club membership
  • Defined benefit pension plan
  • Defined contribution pension plan
  • Disability insurance
  • Employee assistance program
  • **Employee referral bonus
  • Employee stock purchase plan
  • **Employer funded annuity
  • Exceptional service bonus
  • Expense account
  • *Family and medical leave
  • Family (or pet) to work days
  • Flexible work schedule
  • Food discounts
  • Free admission to specified museums
  • **Free coffee
  • Free massages
  • Free parking
  • Golden parachute
  • Grooming allowance
  • Gym membership
  • Health insurance
  • *Health insurance for companies (with 50+employees)
  • Health savings acct (HSA, FSA, HRP & HRA)
  • Holiday parties
  • Hybrid car allowance
  • Jury duty supplemental payment
  • Lactation room
  • Liberal vacation policy
  • Life insurance
  • Matching charitable gift program
  • **Monthly car allowance contribution
  • **Monthly mobile contribution
  • New business commission
  • On-site amenities, e.g., haircut, spa, cafeteria, dental care
  • Paid association membership
  • Paid holidays
  • Paid internships
  • Paid family leave
  • Paid holidays off
  • Paid legal costs for H-1B visa
  • *Paid maternity leave
  • Paid maternity leave (less than 50 employees)
  • Paid or unpaid sabbatical
  • Paid time off for bereavement
  • Paid time off during summer
  • Paid time off to join protest rallies
  • Paid volunteer time off
  • Performance bonus
  • **Productivity contests
  • Profit sharing
  • Relaxation lounge
  • Relocation assistance
  • Retirement savings plan
  • Semi-annual performance review
  • Service recognition awards
  • Severance pay
  • Sick and personal days
  • Sign-on bonus
  • *Social security, Medicare & FICA
  • Sponsor approved college degree programs
  • Stand-up comedy training
  • Stock options
  • Summer hours
  • Team-building company retreats
  • Telecommuting options
  • **Tenured sabbatical
  • Tickets for sporting events
  • **Travel retreats
  • Tuition assistance
  • *Unemployment insurance
  • **Unlimited vacation days
  • Vision insurance
  • **Weekly happy hours
  • Wellness pay
  • Work remotely
  • Workers’ compensation insurance
  • Yoga breaks

TOTAL = 91

* = government mandated

** = added since 08/03/17

Most employee engagement activities involve new management vocabulary, lexicons, lists of concepts, ideas and stuff. Still, this entire category of activity is trying to respond to the age-old concerns of managers and leaders, “Why can’t these people just do what they’re told?” “What’s keeping them from becoming partners with me in this daily venture?” “Why don’t they care?” “What do they want?” Employees just seem to watch the clock to make certain they go home on time. Most of them have no idea how hard the leadership team is working to move this organization “forward.“

Employee questions are far simpler, ”Does anybody know I’m here?” “Does what I do actually matter in the scheme of things?” “Yes, I think I got a good deal to come here, but who knows for sure?” “Why did they stop talking to me when I signed the contract and came to work?”

So what are the fundamental flaws? The first flaw is that employee engagement needs to be established and run by employees. Management repeatedly shows that it doesn’t care about employees much except that they produce the expected monetized, metricized, forecasted and anticipated results. You know that the company has problems when they refer to their employees as human assets or human capital. Really? The dehumanization begins when the human assets arrive at work. The main problem is, these assets actually feel things, need things and talk back. But, who in management is really listening for those things.

There’s a constant pressure on management and HR and its consultants to find newer, better business language to permeate the seemingly impenetrable barrier between management and employees. The most current addition to the lexicon of employee engagement is something called human analytics, or if your company is progressive, you call it people analytics. Again, we see the kind of scientific approach to understanding the environment of the working person. Where is the humane, people oriented language, customs and emotional connection which most employees seem to need, ironically, the leaders of the company most of all? Today’s modern manager fresh from MBA school has been taught to consider that approach to be sissy stuff.

After all, science is a perfectly dispassionate way dealing in facts, scientific conjecture, data, symmetry, analytics, and endpoints. Anything interfering, distorting, emotionalizing or heaven forbid humanizing this scientific approach is to ashamed when found, its practitioners condemned and be visibly and ruthlessly removed.

Yet the weak strategy for management to solve this problem is, out of sheer frustration, to ask (or more realistically whine) “what do they want?” Humans have never done well in test tubes. Somehow this simple and important question becomes a study comparing the behavior of other employees in peer and so-called high-performance organizations in 20 different categories. Once this analysis is complete a kind of management gibberish is used to illustrate and apply the results.

In order to achieve “motivating vision behavior, as a distinct element,” according to PWC, foundational and developing elements related to motivating vision should then make the difference in terms of whether organizations can attain and maintain this particular distinctive element. The progression model produces two foundational elements and several developing elements that can create and support a work experience where people are motivated by the future vision of the organization.” Is it any wonder employees don’t get it. Management can’t articulate what they want or need in language a 13-year-old can understand.

Aside from all the turgid language, management feels unappreciated and actually resentful because the vast majority of those working do get to go home on time while the leaders and managers stay behind to get their work done once everyone’s gone. The question I always ask managers and leaders expressing their frustration about employees is, “What if everybody heard your gripes and bellyaching, which employees can’t help but notice, and decided to stay late? Your stuff would remain undone and you would resent that.”

Okay so I’ve made my point, before the mail comes roaring in from employee engagement consultants everywhere, if I’m so smart, how should it really work?

Let’s begin with just five principles of employee engagement:

1.    Those who know most in an organization about employee needs, desires and hopes are the employees themselves. They should be put in charge of determining and informing management of their hopes, dreams, aspirations and expectations.

2.    Management goes to “people school” to really get a handle on those things that would help establish, maintain and expand the kind of engagement that employees care about that, if accommodated, will have an enormously positive impact on getting things done. Based on my experience with companies attempting to recover from very difficult situations, usually of the own making, those who listen to their employees hear things like:

a.   I’d like to be trusted

b.   I want to feel I can trust the people I work for

c.   I’d like to feel that they care about me and what worries and affects me as well

d.   I want to be proud of where I work and that people know I’m here.

e.   I’d like to be recognized for my contribution, not spiffed so much as recognized out loud so I can talk about it tonight at dinner with my kids.

f.    I expect senior management, and all management to meet my ethical expectations of their leadership

g.   I’d like to hear managers, especially my supervisor talk about these things.

h.   When something bad happens, I’d like to hear about it at work, not in social media, from a competitor or the evening news.

3.    Employees go home on time because their lives, from their perspective, begin at quitting time. They have responsibilities at home and want to feel good about being able to leave when they need to. “At this point in my life, I have a lot of things going on outside of work that I think are really important. I wish my manager would at least not make me feel guilty because she’s staying and working late every night.”

“What I might like to stay late for would be classes and experiences that teach me new things, or how to advance myself, to better understand things that are expected of me. Get information about things that matter to me. Truth is I’d really rather get this stuff during regular working hours if it’s about work.”

4.    Understand the influence of management and leadership on employees and where employees get their information:

  • CEO    3%
  • Top management 6%
  • Middle management 8%
  • First-line supervisor 35%
  • TGNTM          25%
  • IMIU               23%
  • TGNTM = The guy or girl next to me.
  • IMIU = I made it up.

5.    Engagement is a two-way street. Right now, we have all the consultants roaming around asking us questions as though management has no idea what to do, and can’t figure it out, so they send these smart people around asking us what the solutions are. Management never seems to get the right information because every 20 months or so different consultants come around asking the same questions again. Who are these people anyway?

The main lesson here, to be somewhat repetitive, is that employee engagement has to be about employees, their concerns, their fears, their doubts, their uncertainties. It is a relationship that is based on employee core values, the personal protective beliefs that they seek management to honor: candor, civility, openness, truthfulness, respect, responsibility, responsiveness, restraint, transparency, humility/apology, allowing us to bring your family values into our offices and workstations rather than leaving them in the car in the parking lot, be truly engaged in an ongoing conversation about what matters to both of us.

What’s truly clear is that running a business as a scientific experiment may produce great companies, even great leaders, but fail to produce good companies, good leaders and good places to work. It’s time to reverse a paradigm and learn how to make great companies good companies.

By: James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, Fellow IABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, BEPS Emeritus, America’s Crisis Guru®. Visit to learn more about Jim.

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