Employee engagement? Forget it

Apr 21 2015 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

One of the biggest workplace issues of the day - and this website is absolutely loaded with articles to prove it - is employee engagement. Year after year weíre told that that fewer than a third of employees are actively engaged at work. This, it seems, is the fault of careless employers who just donít care. If they only offered better benefits, or free pizza, or allowed webcams, or let us bring in our shih-tzu to the office, employees would re-engage to give their best efforts and all would be well with the world.

Thereís only one problem with that theory: itís nonsense.

Before you scroll down to the comments section to fire off angry rebuttals, hear me out. Iím not saying that employers donít make a difference to employee engagement levels, they do. The fallacy, though, is that engagement is something you can do to other people.

The theory goes that if you act a certain way, your employees will reciprocate your feelings and give you a better effort. The problem is that employee engagement happens solely on the part of the individual worker. Donít believe me? Consider your love life.

I donít want to pick at any emotional scabs, but have you ever been wildly in love with someone who didnít feel the same way about you? The sad truth is, you canít make someone love you. You can make a conscious effort to attract them, and some of us can come up with 150 ways to drive someone away, but only the other person can decide to accept you or not. Same thing with work, although there have been fewer good songs written about it.

Iíve been noodling this for a long time, and so often in life itís only when people smarter than you put it in words that you think, ďyes, Iíve been thinking exactly that.Ē In his new book, Ď Triggers, Creating Behavior that Lasts, Becoming the Person You Want to Be,í Marshall Goldsmith makes the same argument. Engagement is internal to the person in question.

At even the most awful, dysfunctional companies you find a mix of people. In any job, he says, you have a mix of people who are actively engaged, positive and giving it their all You have most of the people who are doing what theyíre supposed to do, and everyoneís okay with that. Then you have the people who are negative, disruptive or outright destructive.

In Goldsmithís opinion, the people who are actively engaged choose to be engaged. The ones who arenít might blame outside factors like the employer, the economy, their home life or Obama, but at the end of the day itís a pretty consistent percentage of the population that falls into each camp.

Goldsmith suggests asking ourselves direct, engaging questions. Rather than ďwere you engaged at work today?Ē which implies that there are multiple external factors at work, he suggests asking questions that start with something simple. ďDid I do my best to be engaged?Ē or ďDid I do my best to successfully reach good outcomes for my customers?Ē Those questions create an entirely different mindset.

Now, if some of the answers are followed up by, ďhow can we help?Ē or ďhow did we get in the way?Ē, that company can really move the needle and help people engage. See the difference? You canít force engagement on people, but you can help them engage.

This is not to imply that companies donít do an awful lot to create conditions under which people actively disengage. They do. Working conditions, pay, manager-employee relationships and even pizza parties all can help or hinder your efforts to engage people. At the end of the day, though, itís up to each employee.

There is an old saying (attributed to Buddha although he never actually said it), that Ďpain is inevitable, misery is optionalí. The same goes for engagement. Our workplaces might be absolutely crazy and even soul-sucking, but how we respond to that craziness and whether we allow our souls to be slurped up is up to us, whether thereís free pizza or not.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.