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.

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  • This is a great post. Engagement definitely does not mean comfort. If there’s unhappiness, challenge, scarce resources, conflict, let people engage with that. If there are people who don’t want to engage with that, then a truly engaged workplace may not be the right place for them. A business built on engagement still lets people go, but everyone understands why, including the person leaving.

    It’s like an engaged life. Comfort, on the level of “I feel gooood!”, is insufficient. “An unexamined life is not worth living.”

  • Thanks so much for your thoughts and perspective. Being engaged is more than just being engaged with what makes you feel warm and gooey. Engaged employees handle reality well (change, good, bad and ugly). I appreciate you sharing!

  • Love the picture, but not the image you conjure up. Great post. Thanks!

    Mike…

  • Thanks Mike. I was thinking what could be the laziest thing someone could do at work besides sleep. That picture was my result. I appreciate you commenting and glad you liked the post!

  • Steve G

    Another good post

    For me, the most powerful statements are contained in this paragraph:

    “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”.

    Funny thing about satisfied employees, they will be the first ones to complain about not getting their fair share, or the recognition they deserve.

    As the prior comment mentioned, Engagement Does Not Mean Comfort. I do believe that employees want to be challenged, they want to be pushed out of their comfort level – and they want to be engaged by the leadership. When everyone on the team is engaged at a high level, they will push those who are not living upto the standards.

    I have also witnessed top talent wanting to leave an organization because the leadership settles for satisfaction and does not strive for a higher level of success.

    Looking forward to your next…

    SPGonz

  • You bet Steve. Challenged employees are much more likely to be engaged. It’s not automatic, but it is part of the overall mix. I appreciate your ongoing contribution to my blog posts. Thanks heaps my friend!

  • I enjoyed reading this. Would love to use this, “Move beyond making everyone feel warm and gooey and give them the opportunity to become engaged.” as our company motto at Beyond Morale. Our work over the past several years has led us to the conclusion that employee engagement is so elusive because the answer lies in each individual employee. While the constructs may be similiar the formula is unique. Our goal is to quickly crack the code and increase the leadership skills in everyone. Keep them coming.

    Regards,

    Jim

  • Thanks for the feedback and sharing some of the challenges you face. We all learn when we share and collaborate freely. As for using that for your motto: 1) Thanks for asking. 2) Have at it and may it serve you and Beyond Morale very well, my friend!

    Cheers,
    William

  • Great post. The situation really is a matter of give and take, isn’t it? Or, to put it more correctly – it’s all just a matter of trust.

    Most people aren’t crazy, or lazy. Employees who become complacent and demanding probably have some good reasons for being so. It might not have happened at the current company but, odds are, somewhere – people were so mistreated that they no longer believe that anything they do genuinely matters. So, as a result, these folks do just enough to get by since their efforts are never fully rewarded. When such a person enters into an environment where the employer is, genuinely, looking for an employee-first culture – skepticism is the only result. If you’re skeptical, you might as well get as much as you can for as little effort as possible, right? Surely, the gravy train won’t last for long – but it sure is fun to ride.

    It takes time a long time to re-earn trust, even if you’re not the one that broke it. Encourage the habit of taking a long-term view at all levels of the organization. People who loaf might start to see things differently once they believe, through a lot of reinforcement, that this latest round of employee-centric thinking isn’t just the latest flavor of the month.

    Last year, I put a post on my blog that discussed some of these points as well. Feel free to check it out:
    http://myflexiblepencil.com/2010/08/04/are-poor-attitudes-justified/

  • Thanks for your thorough comment David. It’s very important to be aware of the line between understanding influential factors and enabling an excuse for poor behavior. I appreciate your contribution and thanks for the link to your post!

  • I agree with the statement you’re making. However; if your company starts growing and you start to loose the overview over everybody’s personal well-being within the company, then how would you know where to focus on or, saying it better, how to increase the personal well-being without having a construct of satisfaction or engagement to ‘measure’ things?

  • Of course there is a need to measure things as you go, and there are a number of quality instruments out there to accomplish that. A part of understanding how best to do this is to not make it any one person’s responsibility, but rather part and parcel of your organizational culture. Thanks for raising a good point and contributing to the post Emile!