The big push now is “employees first, customer second”. I agree with this concept 100%. Where I think it’s run off the rails is in how it is implemented; the expression of how employees are put first. Employee engagement surveys are a dime a dozen and many of them measure the wrong things. It’s like asking first graders how well they like the lima beans at the school cafeteria. It’s more of a popularity contest than it is measuring engagement.

To add balance to my mildly beleaguered view of things, I want to bring some clarity to what employee engagement is and what it isn’t. According to a recent article by Tony Schwartz, it is business goals being achieved while meeting survival needs (money), physical needs (benefits, well-being, etc.), emotional needs (feeling valued and appreciated), self-expression needs (autonomy, empowerment, use of talent, etc.), and a need for significance (feel what is being done actually matters).

What employee engagement isn’t is making sure everyone likes everything and happily sits around a campfire holding hands and singing Kumbaya. It isn’t the whole idea of “I’m okay, you’re okay” and then simply avoiding any type of conflict while the business burns down around them either.

Employee engagement must have all the typical business elements: communication, accountability, feedback, responsibilities, time restrictions, etc. It’s not a pee wee football game where everyone is great as long as they showed up and stood somewhere on the field at some point; it’s still a business. Being focused only on employee satisfaction as the principle idea behind employee engagement puts an organization in a compromising position to reward poor performance, as long as they’re happy about it. What business sense does it make to have satisfied under performers?

Truly engaged employees stay with an organization for what they are able to give. Satisfied employees stay with an organization for what they can get. This has to begin during the recruitment process. People are hired for their aptitude and typically fired for their attitude. We set people up to fail and then are frustrated because we think we’re sourcing poor talent or our employee engagement attempts don’t work. It’s just that the wrong metrics are being applied in the wrong places and in the wrong manner.

Move beyond making everyone feel warm and gooey and give them the opportunity to become engaged. It is NOT the same thing. Provide for their well-being, value & appreciate them, empower them, and help them see how what they do matters. Continue to communicate clearly, hold them accountable, define their responsibilities, and get on with running a successful and profitable organization.