You Will Never Win The Employee Engagement Battle

There is an interesting Psychological phenomenon that happens when you do something over and over, it’s called “decline effect.”  Decline effect, simply, is when you first go out and measure something, then put some focus on bettering that one thing, as you continue to do it, you don’t get better results the more you do it, you actually start to see declining results.  I bring this up as I see so many articles recently written on declining Employee Engagement, and almost all of those articles focus on the economy and the lack of additional or more choices for the employee to change, as being the primary culprit for lower engagement scores.  That could definitely be one answer, and it fits well with the timing of our economic collapse – all though I think many companies actually saw engagement scores increase as the economy started to go south.  So, maybe this decline effect fits for some organizations.

Here’s my theory.  Over the past 5-10 years employee engagement has been a huge focus of HR shops around the world.  An entire consultancy industry has sprung up to support increasing organizations employee engagement levels.  As organizations do, meaning we usually go right ditch – left ditch, we focused on Engagement!  We began by measuring our baseline – we then implemented programs – and we saw the fruit of our labor by increased scores.  Every year we went out to increase those scores, damn the torpedoes, we need more engagement, I don’t care if you have 100% engagement – Google has 105% engagement – we need that as well!  So we double-triple-quadruple our engagement efforts, but something strange started to happen – our scores weren’t getting better, they started to creep the other way – oh no – they’re getting worse!

Has to be those lazy managers – more leadership training is needed – more focus. Still lower scores.  Oh wait, those lazy employees, we need to change some of them as well. Still lower scores. Must be that crappy engagement vendor we are using  – go find a new one! Still lower scores.

Give up?

When I bough my first house, I was very happy with it.  I had never had a house and my first small, cozy house was perfect.  3 bedrooms, 2 baths and a lawn – and I was happy.  Then I bought my next house and it had more, it had more bedrooms, more bathrooms, more lawn – and I was even more happy!  Then I bought my next house and it had all my last house had, but it more garage and it was on the water and it had more space. But, I really wasn’t happier – it seemed like the more space had some issues as well – it cost more, it took longer to clean, it was just more work.

We spend so much time and effort on making our employees happy.  New chair – you’ll be more comfortable.  Free lunch – you look hungry.  Let me wash your cat – you look overworked. Have a free massage – you look tired.  Let me fix your boss – he doesn’t seem very nice.  Then all of sudden we don’t have more of offer, anything else to make better.  It’s not that our employees weren’t engaged before all of this, they were – we just wanted more – but more comes with a price.  To keep more, you have to keep giving more and eventually you’ll run into a wall where more isn’t the answer. When more won’t give you more – it will start giving you less.

Employee Engagement is tricky – don’t fall into the “more” trap – you won’t like what you will create!

3 thoughts on “You Will Never Win The Employee Engagement Battle

  1. We will win the engagement battle when all employees from the stock room to the board room do their jobs well all the time but we need start with the CEO and work down the corporate ladder not up.

  2. 0% of employees self-report that they are not engaged.
    80% of managers are ill suited to effectively manage people.
    The two 80 percents are closely related.

    Employers keep hiring the wrong people to be their managers and then they wonder why they have so few successful, engaged employees. Successful employees have all three of the following success predictors while unsuccessful employee lack one or two and usually it is Job Talent that they lack.
    1. Competence
    2. Cultural Fit
    3. Job Talent 



  3. Tim- I am so on board with this but no one wants to hear it. I’ve brought up this issue year after year and it continues to fall on deaf ears.

    In January 2011 I said engagement was Sisyphean (http://fistfuloftalent.com/2011/01/is-employee-engagement-a-sisyphean-effort.html) – best quote from that post:

    “I believe at some point, employees will become “engagement adjusted.” As a company adds new benefits, new initiatives, new “perks” – the engagement scores will rise and then fall back. In other words… I don’t think there is an end to employee engagement. There is no finite continuum for engagement – no 5, 10 or 100. Engagement will top out over time (I’ve not seen studies on this so I’m winging it here…) at about 50% engaged and 50% disengaged. I say 50% only because I think the scores will ultimately fall back to an average score in any engagement survey.

    It means you can’t win. Don’t try. Don’t try to get to the top of any scale. It’s a Sisyphean task.”

    Then in 2012 I said employees were gaming the system so the number is worthless (http://fistfuloftalent.com/2012/12/we-have-employee-engagement-backward.html):

    “I’ve gone on record before that employees have learned how to respond to surveys in a way that gets them more stuff. Each time a company surveys their employees, the numbers drop and they add a new perk or bennie to “increase engagement.” Employees see this and they figure out that as long as the company thinks they are disengaged they get more stuff.”

    And also:

    “Engagement scores will never go up as long as the employer is always cow-towing to employees based on the latest engagement survey.

    Employees aren’t stupid. As long as you survey regularly and respond with new “engagement” bonuses, they learn that it is in their best interest to always have another demand in the chamber, ready to roll out when they think the company is getting a little soft on the perks.”

    And this year I talked about Cambell’s Law (http://www.symbolist.com/blog/2014/05/use-employee-engagement-scores-make-decisions/) which basically states that the more you use a measure for decision making the more corrupt the number gets. Sounds like engagement scores to me!

    To quote Paul Hebert:

    “In the absence of truth we will follow anything that look similar to it.”

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