The Employee Engagement Racket

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Every decade or so, a bright new theory about managing people gets HR chiefs all excited. In the 1980s, it was the 360 Evaluation. In the nineties, we had Automated Applicant-Tracking Systems and Comprehensive Performance-Management Systems. These days, Employee Engagement is hot.

What is Employee Engagement? It’s a made-up construct that seeks to measure how well our employees like us. We used to talk about employee morale; now the preferred term is “Engagement with the Mission.” To me, employee engagement surveys and the notion of employee engagement itself are unfortunate vestiges of the Mad Men era when overzealous social scientists set out to measure every human process in organizational life.

It is easy enough to slot people into columns labeled Name, Job Description, Title, Salary, Performance Rating, Days Missed, Goals Met, and so on. But it doesn’t do much (if any) practical good on the ground. In the same way, out-of-context Employee Engagement Surveys are a crock and a racket—worse, by far, than just a waste of time.

Here’s why. To begin with, the notion of Employee Engagement is abstract and disconnected from your team members’ experiences. People plug into their work at different levels and for different reasons. Your IT people, if they’re like lots of techies, may connect to their work at the level of the most interesting problems they’re asked to solve. They may have no clue about your company’s mission and goals, and care even less. That’s fine. You don’t need them to memorize the company’s fight song. You just need their brains and energy plugged in where it counts.

And when you blast out a once-a-year engagement survey, the message it sends your employees is insulting. A reliance on employee surveys in any organization makes it clear that communication isn’t what it should be. If you care what your team members think, ask them to talk to you all the time, face-to-face or mediated by technology. If your leadership team determined through a survey algorithm that you had a problem in some area—say, in the preparedness of your first-line supervisors to lead—what good would that numeric score do you? What would you need to solve the problem? You’d need stories. So why not collect stories from the start, as they unfold?

Employee surveys are great for collecting factual information with few variables, like votes on proposed benefit plans. They are horrible for collecting stories-in-context, the kind of feedback that is likely to compel an overstressed leadership team to act. If we value the connection between our employees and their work—not to mention our goals, our profits, and our businesses’ growth curves—we’ll ask people what they think more often than in an annual survey.

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