Why Isn't Employee Engagement Engaging Employees?

Despite good intentions, employee-engagement programs seem to be falling short of their promise, and end up engendering frustration and, far worse, cynicism among the workforce.

By John Guaspari

(Editor's note: Portions of the following have been adapted from John Guaspari's book, Otherwise Engaged: How Leaders Can Get a Firmer Grip on Employee Engagement and Other Key Intangibles.)

Over the past decade or so, countless books and articles have been published and scores of seminars and symposia have been convened citing the dramatic business benefits to be realized by organizations able to achieve higher levels of employee engagement.

Supporting this contention is solid research from such reputable entities as Gallup, Deloitte and The Conference Board, which would seem to legitimize the time and resources expended in attending to a notion that might otherwise appear to be so soft and, to invoke a highly technical term, woo-woo. Alas, as tends to be the case with all such Next Big Things, EE seems to be falling short of its promise, engendering frustration and, far worse, cynicism.

Why? Here's the simple answer: Because the approach most organizations are taking is, to invoke another highly technical term, wrong.

A Thought Experiment

Imagine two adjacent rooms in a conference center. Here's a snapshot of the activity in Room A.


And here's what's going on in Room B.


Question:  In which room are the people more highly engaged?

Over the years, I've posed this question in scores of workshops and seminars to thousands of people, and the response has always been virtually unanimous:  "Room A!" Nobody has ever said Room B. Occasionally -- very occasionally -- I'll spot someone whose body language suggests uncertainty, and I'll draw out a third reply: "Doesn't it depend?" Exactly right.

Why? Consider two scenarios.


The people gathered around the flip chart in Room A are dealing with a topic that is not only of considerable significance to the business but is also right in the mainstream of their day-to-day work. While they know that there is no guarantee that their recommendations will be accepted, they also know that they will have been genuinely listened to and taken seriously.

The people in Room B are being subjected to death by PowerPoint. The topic isn't particularly relevant to them, and Googling the speaker's name coupled with the words "Grand National Toastmasters Champion!" is unlikely to come up with any hits.

In this scenario, it's safe to assume that, yes, the people in Room A are indeed more highly engaged.

But now let's consider…


The people in Room A all have the chance to speak their piece as the scribe diligently bullets their comments onto the flip chart. (If it's a particularly high-powered flip-charting session, sticky notes and colored dots may even be involved.) But while all this is going on, what's running through people's heads is: "Didn't we just go through this exercise a couple of months ago?" Or: "The higher-ups aren't going to pay attention to anything we come up with." Or: "I knew I should have clicked DECLINE when I got the meeting invitation!"

Meanwhile, the speaker in Room B is covering a seemingly familiar topic in new and thought-provoking ways. He's causing people to become actively aware of the assumptions they've been operating under, and he's challenging them to reconsider them. He's also skillful enough to hold the attention of a roomful of people seated auditorium-style on the kind of molded plastic chairs generally found in bus stations or at the DMV.

Who's more highly engaged in this case? Right. The folks in Room B. Which brings us to a series of questions.

Question #1:  "Why do most people reflexively choose Room A?"

Because they see the concept of engagement as a mechanical one, as in "two gears engaging."  They think: "We'll bring people together -- in the same room, on the same video conference, on the same email distribution list -- and they will, therefore, be more highly engaged."

This leads to nice and tidy project management plans with well-defined tasks, e.g., executives deigning to appear at quarterly all-hands meetings, a weekly letter from the president posted on the company's intranet, and mandatory expansion of managers' open-door office hours. Flowing from such tasks is a suite of straightforward metrics: the number of attendees at all-hands meetings, the number of exposures to letters from the president, and the number of drop-ins for manager/employee chats.

They see this as progress -- "Look at all the engagement stuff we've done!" -- but then are surprised and disappointed that their scores aren't going up on the company's annual EE survey.

Here, then, is the nub of the issue: EE, properly understood, is "the extent to which an individual is moved to invest extra time and energy in the tasks at hand."  Note: it's about people being "moved," not "the number of mechanical connections an individual has to other people and/or information flow."

Said another way, the locus of EE is in the minds, hearts, and souls of individuals and not in the task columns of their managers' EE Project Management spreadsheets. Or to harken back to our thought experiment: The level of engagement is not defined by what's going on inside of the rooms. Rather, it's determined by what's going on inside of the people inhabiting those rooms.

Question #2:  "Why do so many people operate from this mistaken assumption about the real nature of EE?"

Those with management responsibilities tend to be comfortable when facing operational, process-intensive challenges; after all, being effective at doing so is what made them successful managers in the first place.

Directly confronting a more people-centric challenge such as EE forces managers out of their comfort zones. So the human animal, preferring comfort to discomfort, defaults to those harder-edged project management mind-sets and techniques that have worked so well in the past.

This tendency is exacerbated by a kind of tacit collusion: "As long as I'm just doing what my peers are doing I'll be ok."  Oh, sure, they all say the right things at their companies' annual Lip Service to Engagement Pageant, but they know in their minds, hearts, and souls (ironic, no?) that what really matters is the harder-edged stuff. The result is a sort of institutional shrug: "We'll give it our best shot. But everybody knows that the soft stuff is the hard part. I mean, hey -- whattayagonnado?"  

So why do so many people operate from a mistaken assumption about the real nature of EE? Because it's easier and safer to do so.

Question #3:  "Why is this only now becoming so problematic?"

Because organizations have already been pretty thoroughly TQM'd and Six-Sigmafied and Leaned-Out. The benefits from those harder-edged, process-based approaches have already been realized.

That means that we've finally arrived at the point where all of the decades-long corporate cant -- "Our people are our most valuable resource!"; "We've got the best people in the industry!"; "The only sustainable competitive advantage we've got is our people!" -- now actually applies.

EE can be the concept that helps organizations better come to grips with this more genuinely people-centric reality. But that won't happen if those EE efforts continue to be based on an understanding of the concept that is -- again, not to put too fine a point on things -- wrong.

Question #4: "How can this problem be avoided?"

Here's a chart summarizing the scenarios from our thought experiment.

In the two cases where the meeting participants were Disengaged, little effort appeared to have been made to truly connect with them in ways that were tailored to, and, therefore, more meaningful for them. In the Engaged rooms, people sensed that they were thought of as valuable and value-adding contributors to the business.

The difference between the two outcomes is best captured in a single word: Respect, defined here as "giving due consideration to the other."

If there's a shortfall of respect, people are going to tune out what sounds to them like so much corporate blather about EE, seeing it as just another in a long and by-now tedious string of Next Big Things. They may not be able to articulate it, but they innately understand -- in their hearts and souls -- that EE is ultimately a profoundly personal matter, and they resent the arrogance of attempts to take a project management approach to something that is more properly understood to be a matter of institutional soulcraft.

So if you want to achieve higher levels of EE, stop treating people with such disrespect -- as though they're merely cogs in a machine -- which is exactly what taking a mechanical, utilitarian approach to EE breeds.

Question #5:  "How can EE efforts be more effectively measured?"

It's axiomatic that "what gets measured gets managed." And since the desire to measure aligns perfectly with managers' operational, process-driven bias, it's hardly surprising that EE metrics have gotten a lot of attention.

But consider the following quote from W. Edwards Deming: "The most important things cannot be measured . . . (they) are unknown and unknowable.

Or if you prefer a snappier version of the same idea, this by William Bruce Cameron: "Not everything that can be counted counts. Not everything that counts can be counted."

It would be ideal if "the" EE metric were available. But a desire for something does not constitute proof if its existence. And if the root cause of the shortfall of EE results is the misfit between managers' operational, process-driven bias and the true nature of engagement, perhaps it would be best to reconsider the holy-of-holies status we've accorded the quest for such a metric. Or, as Albert Einstein put it: "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."

By way of suggesting a different way thinking about metrics, let me suggest two that are meant to be heuristic as opposed to prescriptive, i.e., instructive vs. actually implemented.


Let's go back to the assumption behind the reflexive response ("Room A!") in our thought experiment: "I put them in a room and let them voice their opinions. I have, therefore, engaged them."

It's the "therefore" that's the problem, since it suggests that the mechanical, gears-coming-together view of engagement is the one being employed. A bright marker of this view is the use of the word "engage" as a transitive verb: "I will now engage you." 

Here might be a way to effectively measure this imprecision: Give people license to call-out others when they use "engage" as a transitive verb, then track the number of times people exercise this license.

Wouldn't people be uncomfortable doing this? You bet. It would make everyone -- callers and call-ees alike -- as uncomfortable as hell. That's a good thing, since as was said above, the human animal will do what it takes to avoid discomfort. In this context, avoiding discomfort means thinking and talking about EE more precisely, more correctly.

Isn't this just a matter of semantics? While, yes, it is a matter of semantics there's no "just" about it. (Mark Twain: "The difference between almost the right word and the right word is really a large matter. It's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.") Unless and until EE is correctly framed, your approach to achieving it will be wrong, and your results will come up short; you may even do harm in the long run.


Key point: EE is an output, i.e., the result of other things having been done well. The single most essential input to achieving higher levels of EE is the degree to which respect is infused throughout the organizations. The infusion of respect is everyone's responsibility, not just management's. It's as important for subordinates to "give due consideration to" the point of view of their managers as the other way around.

Here might be a way to measure the understanding of this key point. Hang a small mirror in the workspace of every employee. (No, I don't think anyone would really do this. Remember: heuristic, not prescriptive.) Require that before leaving for home at the end of each day they look into the mirror and answer one question: "To what extent did you 'give due consideration to the other' today?"  Have them use a 1-10 scale, with 1 meaning "not at all" and 10 meaning "at all times and with everyone." Then collect and analyze the results.

First, this would provide you with a leading indicator of EE levels. In those corners of your organization where respect-infusion levels are high, you would expect to see EE levels going up.

Second, it's a case of "form fitting function."  The crux of this entire argument has been that EE, properly understood, resides deeply within people. Having employees look into a mirror serves both as a metaphor-for and reinforcement-of this critical notion.

Third, it sends a clear and unambiguous message that the infusion of respect is: a) critical, and b) everybody's job.

Question #6: "Isn't this all awfully soft and 'woo-woo?' "

I know, I know. All of this talk about respect and hearts and souls -- and, God help us, transitive verbs and mirrors -- is just the kind of soft, squishy language that makes managers uncomfortable.

Too bad. It may not be what they want to hear, but it is the real problem they're facing. The time has come to really mean all those nice words about "our people," and EE -- properly understood -- is the concept that can help them do so. Otherwise, they'll continue to stumble along wasting time, resources, and the good will of the people who are, after all, their only source of sustainable competitive advantage.

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Mar 16, 2017
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