Billions worldwide are being spent to improve Employee Engagement and we are often being told about its benefits. If it has the potential to yield so many great results, why are we failing to achieve them? As reported by Gallup, surveys suggest that only 15% of the global workforce are highly engaged. Does the failure to improve employee engagement levels suggest that the concept of employee engagement is fundamentally flawed?
The biggest problem undermining employee engagement is that the hype surrounding it has created unrealistic and confusing expectations for employees. In this article, I will be suggesting that Employee Engagement is stuck somewhere between 20th-century assembly-line attitudes and a way of working that is relevant for businesses looking to thrive in the 21st Century.
There has always been confusion surrounding Employee Engagement, some believing it is the holy grail of business performance, others thinking that it is a fad which simply rebrands the annual survey, or shoehorns everything that great organisations already do into a marketable product. As with many things, the reality is somewhere in the middle.
If you google Employee Engagement you will not be presented with the full facts, you will get adverts and numerous articles talking about the benefits that it will bring. Very few people will discuss the negatives that surround Employee Engagement, but I believe we have to if we are going to make significant progress.
Employee Engagement (The Term)
In an article for Forbes Josh Bersin states that “the word “engagement” often limits our thinking. It’s assumed that our job is to reach out and “engage” people, rather than to build an organization that is exciting, fulfilling, meaningful, and fun.” This is where the confusion begins.
Studies have found that highly engaged workers tend to struggle with balancing work and family life and that people who fail to take downtime can end up damaging their own health. After ensuring the safety of your employees their wellbeing should be next, and this should come before considering engagement. Employees who are healthy and happy will outperform employees who are merely engaged.
I don’t think this is breaking news but companies invest in employee happiness, wellbeing, and engagement for one simple reason … that these factors contribute to higher levels of productivity and retainment. However, there is also a clear shift in our society to a focus on wellbeing, both physically and mentally. So companies that invest in successful wellbeing initiatives will have a far greater impact on employees’ lives than those investing solely in employee engagement strategies. While I understand there is some crossover in these areas, the evidence clearly shows that employees want investment in wellbeing over anything else.
While engagement is an important determinant of performance, performance is also affected by other, arguably more significant factors. For example, a study by Google found that the critical drivers of effective team performance were an open and safe team culture, clear goals, and a strong sense of purpose. When it comes to engagement, it is even possible that motivated workers resist new ways of doing things because change seems counterintuitive to them. Research shows that people who are optimistic about their performance stop trying to get better whereas frustrated and dissatisfied people tend to find creative breakthroughs when incentivised and supported in the right way. So is engagement the enemy of productivity? Not at all, but the truth is that performance gains are more likely to boost engagement levels than vice-versa.
A highly engaged team may give an unfair advantage to certain personality types. This is hardly ever acknowledged and it can lead to the stifling of truly innovative and transformational cultures. Engagement is not just driven by situational factors: it is also the result of individuals’ personality. Lack of diversity of personality types will mean a lack of ideas and this will stifle innovation.
We need to take a more balanced view of employee engagement not using it as an umbrella term for every factor that can positively impact your organisation. Employee engagement is very worthwhile, but in 2019 it is arguably not the primary route to a happy and motivated workforce. I would suggest that a more holistic approach is adopted. An approach that values wellbeing and work-life balance and enables the individual to better themselves through learning & development. Working for a company with a strong commitment to sustainability will help employers and employees with their sense of purpose and value to the wider community.