3 Misconceptions of Employee Engagement

Leaders and Managers are often frustrated in their attempts to improve employee engagement.  Even with all our current efforts for improvement, according to Blessing and White’s 2011 Employee Engagement survey, the average organization stands at only 31% engaged.  I believe much of the frustration and poor performance stems from the misconceptions leaders have about how to improve employee engagement.

Misconception #1 – Managers are fully responsible

The first misconception is “managers are fully responsible for engagement” of employees.  This is a contradiction because employee engagement is, by definition, an emotional response to the environment such that employees willingly exert greater discretionary effort into their work.  Managers cannot create an internal emotional response.  Managers can only create a better environment.  The environment must offer a higher probability of the engagement experience.  The major responsibility for employee engagement must therefore be placed with the employee him/herself.  The employee must take advantage of the environment and all the elements that create engagement.  Employee engagement is a joint responsibility.

There are five key environmental elements for engagement.  They are: understanding and appreciating the overarching purpose of the work, being able to make choices about how to do the work, being challenged by the work, getting frequent feedback about the quality of the work, and frequently seeing evidence of the progress made.

Misconception #2 – Extrinsic motivators will do it

The second misconception is “employee engagement can be created with extrinsic motivators.”  It can’t.  Extrinsic activities or rewards can enhance the engagement experience but they can’t create it.  Only the five intrinsic elements do.

In a recent online discussion with colleagues we were brainstorming all the activities needed for an engaged team.  The list included almost exclusively extrinsic motivators such as offering rewards, showing movies, holding blood drives, and attending sporting events.   Although these can be fun and interesting activities, they are not substitutes for the key elements of engagement mentioned earlier.  Engagement is a symptom of a great environment.  This environment cannot be created easily with extrinsic tricks.  It requires sound theory and complete commitment to values.

Organizations with high quality products manage the variation in their manufacturing processes.  Service companies that have high quality service manage the variation in their service processes.  Every company should have a method to manage the variation of the values behaviors in organizations.  I am in favor of a process I call “Fearless Feedback” which empowers everyone to provide respectful, frequent, and high quality feedback information about the quality of behavior compared to a standard.   Bosses get feedback from employees and peers provide feedback to peers.   When traveling in my car if I see a police officer I slow down.  Everyone can, and should be, a “values cop” helping to manage the variation.  Values behaviors drive all performance.  Buckminster Fuller once said, “Integrity is the essence of everything successful.”   I believe we all need to help each other manage the level of integrity in every interaction in order to boost performance.  We all need to be “values cops.”

Misconception #3 – The current performance review process will help

The third misconception is “the current performance review process is an effective tool for engagement.”  In fact, this outdated tool damages engagement.  The current command and control policies of performance review and pay-for-performance make it impossible to have predictable candor and trust.  Except in small pockets where trust is exceptionally high the current review process causes fear and therefore damages engagement.  We need replace the damaging policies of the old industrial model which once served us well but are hindrances now.

Leaders who are serious about creating employee engagement must embrace different concepts to create that needed shift in organizational environment.  Otherwise, frustration can be a symptom of having these misconceptions.

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