Do Employees Really Want To Be Engaged? by Leigh Branham

26 Jul

The following post was written by my good friend and co-author Leigh Branham. The second edition of his book The Seven Hidden Reasons Why Employees Leave, published by AMACOM, is due out next week. Check out his web site:

As I speak and listen to managers about employee engagement, I occasionally hear a manager come right out and say, “employees don’t want to be engaged.” I have concluded that for every manager who expresses that belief out loud, there are many more who believe it and don’t say it. I believe this mindset helps explain why only about 25% of the workforce is fully engaged. Managers (and senior leaders) who don’t believe employees want to be engaged are less likely to try to engage them and more likely to use a disengaging KITA (Kick-in-the-Ass) management style.

It is understandable that managers have this worldview. For centuries, most notably exemplified by the Greeks and Romans and continuing through the Puritan work ethic that is alive and well yet today, work has been seen as a necessary evil to be suffered and endured. It is only in the last 50 years or so that the idea of a job as a vehicle for self-fulfillment has been widely embraced.

And yes, of course, there are still significant numbers of employees for whom the idea of achieving personal fulfillment at work is a foreign concept. They view work as something they do simply to earn a paycheck that allows them to pursue the things they truly enjoy on their own time. Are they engaged? The term I’ve seen lately to describe these workers is “transactionally engaged.”

By contrast, the “emotionally engaged” are willing to give more discretionary effort at work because they feel a strong bond or connection with the organization, manager, coworkers, or the work itself that is often more important to them than pay.

The transactionally engaged, who most certainly comprise a large portion of the 75% that Gallup identifies as either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged”, aren’t emotionally connected to the organization to the point that they are willing to go above and beyond what’s minimally required on the job. When some managers say they don’t believe employees want to be engaged, they almost certainly have these employees in mind. Thus, we have a matching of mindsets and low mutual expectations.

The question that intrigues me is “what if we could demonstrate to the transactionally engaged that it is possible and desirable for them to be emotionally engaged, not just for the sake of their being more productive for the company’s benefit, but because it would also enhance their personal well-being?

We know what drives engagement. Gallup, Kenexa, Towers-Watson, Sirota and others have all come to very similar conclusions as Mark Hirschfeld and I did in our analysis of 2.1 million employee engagement surveys. Here are the six universal drivers we identified in our book Re-Engage (McGraw-Hill, 2010) that the best employers have in common:

1. Caring, competent, and communicative senior leaders,

2. Managers who proactively manage performance through clear expectations and feedback,

3. A culture of teamwork, not “we vs. they,”

4. Job enrichment, learning and growth opportunities,

5. Feeling valued monetarily and a dozen other ways, and

6. Feeling the organization and manager care about your personal well being.

When these drivers are present in an organization’s culture, employees feel “given to” and, as a result, they typically want to give back. Put another way, they become “emotionally engaged.” Organizations that score higher on these drivers have fewer transactionally engaged employees and more who say things like “For the first time in my life, I actually look forward to coming to work in the morning.” In other words, their eyes have been opened to the possibility/reality that work can be a source of personal fulfillment. Deep down, I believe, we all want to be engaged at work…if only we knew it was achievable.

This is why it is so important for employers not to “roll out” employee engagement “programs”, but instead, actually start doing all the things that truly engage employees. This means training managers in what really engages employees, giving managers the discussion tools they need to engage and re-engage their direct reports, and holding managers accountable for improving a few carefully selected metrics.

Too many companies are conducting engagement surveys without truly intending to take action based on the results. To be fair, some do intend to take action, but still don’t follow through. This only serves to further reduce employee expectations and raise levels of cynicism. For more on this, see C.V. Harquail’s provocative blog — “Why Employee Engagement is a Scam-.

Done well, and not as an exploitive way to get employees to give more effort without giving them something in return, employee engagement is most certainly not a scam. Authentic engagement initiatives inspire commitment, not cynicism.

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