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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

First published October 12, 2013

Cancel Your Employee Engagement Program and Address the Real Problem 

A version of this article appeared at Inc.com It’s amazing how some buzz phrases come back around every decade or so. As a direct result of the 2008-2012 recession and the corresponding productivity increases demanded of a shrinking workforce, we’re currently seeing a resurgence of that old stand-by, the ’employee engagement program’ – really a make-nice cover-up phrase for ‘How do I keep our folks productive when their working environment sucks?’ Don’t get me wrong – I like it when I see business leaders (real, actual people, with names, not ‘the HR department’) genuinely care about their employees enough to want to deepen their level of engagement with the organization – even if it is done for the most mercenary of reasons (simple productivity). But this type of employee engagement – real leaders genuinely caring for the well-being of real employees – has been hijacked by something much less useful (in fact, useless), the ’employee engagement program’. This concept of employee engagement – typically a survey of the workforce which generates endless PowerPoint graphs, much navel-gazing and little or no action – develops like a mold within an organization, taking on a life of its own, unattached to any real, actual people (except maybe some poor schmuck in mid-level HR who, once overjoyed at finding something that promised so much, is now trudging through focus group after focus group, slowly getting the message that nothing actionable is going to come out of any of this). And sadly, that’s exactly what most so-called ’employee engagement programs’ are – misbegotten, unwieldy, ineffective rolling caravans of impractical or never-going-to-be-implemented PowerPoint presentations, usually spawned from an equally bankrupt exercise in so-called ‘benchmarking’ against allegedly ‘best practices’ in other companies. Engagement in the Real World It doesn’t work that way, folks. Employees don’t get ‘engaged’ because HR read somewhere that it’s necessary. More importantly, you’re probably using that ’employee engagement program’ as an exercise in denial. Look around you. Find any business where the people there are genuinely, consistently engaged. I mean it. Do it today – find a business: your dry cleaners, or local coffee shop, or a supplier, or a customer, or maybe (gulp) your previous employer – somewhere – anywhere – where you know from experience that real people are really engaged. I’d bet my last four-leaf clover that when you do identify a business where the employees are genuinely happy and productive (a real business that you personally know, not some case study in a book or article) – that one thing will be missing. There’ll be no ’employee engagement program’. Why? Because they don’t work. Not in the real world. Sure, they make for good reading and fill speaking slots at conferences, but out there where actual people work, employee engagement programs are bankrupt exercises. The Problem Isn’t With Your Employees… In fact, like most diets, employee engagement programs actually have a negative impact. Sure, you lose a few pounds at first, but, in the long run, those pounds come back – and then some. Similarly, your huggy-feely employee engagement program initially raises employees’ expectations (‘They’re finally listening to us and asking our opinion!’) and, for a while, everyone’s engagement goes up a notch (maybe). However, over time, your ponderous questionnaires and negligible or ineffective follow-up sends the engagement indicator back to a level even lower than it was previously (‘I overcame my nervousness and apprehension, and shared my concerns – and they didn’t do a single thing about it!‘). Why? Because people aren’t engaged by programs – they’re engaged by people. This isn’t rocket science. People are engaged by people. In that real business you identified earlier, the employees are engaged because they like their work, and they like the people they work with and for. So when someone approaches me for help in designing an employee engagement program, my first question is this: ‘What’s wrong with your managers?’. Because, sure as shooting, if you need an employee engagement program, the reality is this: the problem is with your managers, not your employees. If your employees are disengaged, your managers are at fault. And the truth of it? No employee engagement program – however well-designed, focus-grouped or externally facilitated – is going to fix that. In fact, it will probably make the situation worse. So, cancel your employee engagement program, pull on your big boy/big girl shoes, and go start working on the real issue: developing your managers.

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