Most employee engagement surveys and initiatives to improve it are a waste of time

Somehow we have deduced that a more engaged workforce is a more productive one. That stands to reason, as well as all the research that confirms it. Still, without changing the organizational system that creates the conditions for trust, you are wasting most of the money you spend on improving employee engagement.

The engagement challenge is not to tweak the work environment but to provide challenging interesting work that delivers the organization’s goals. If the management system does not support completion of the right work in the right roles and you can’t seem to do much about it, you might be in the engagement trap.

The first part of the engagement trap is spending tons of money to measure it. Of course, you cannot manage it if you do not measure it. And once you measure it, you can know where to put emphasis on what things to do to improve. It seems reasonable.

Let’s put numbers to what we already know to be true. (Assuming that you are already good managers with a clear pulse on what makes your people happy, involved and productive at work.) We have the data, now what?

Well, a first step may be that each manager takes accountability for their engagement scores and tries to do something about it. Managers define and implement some changes that will make it better for their group and then tick the “engagement” box on their annual goal sheet as completed.

Some managers may share the numbers and information with their group and tell them what the plan is to improve it. More enlightened managers will share the numbers with their team, and ask them how they might want to make changes to improve it. And we come back to asking your people what it might take to make things better around here so you can win, and enjoy being on a winning team, even if you don’t celebrate victory every day. Isn’t that all it really takes?

Problem is, most of them cannot identify what it might take, just what bugs them or impedes them within their own specific purview or imagination. Kind of like that Henry Ford quote: ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.’

And, inevitably, it gets to a point where what needs to changed is not really in your hands anyway. It has to be “escalated.” So you master the art of the possible: “work around” ; “work with what we’ve got”; “change what we can control, and live with what we can’t.” You have now done a much better job of helping people understand why they need to be complacent about things at work that they cannot change, and they should be happier about it because they at least understand why they need not “engage.” At least we tried. Does that sound like improving engagement?

If your management system is designed to:

  • provide employees with challenging and the accountability and authority to deliver results.
  • ensure your work as a manager is  truly value-adding, support managerial leadership practices that reach for talent decisions two levels up and two levels down.

then you system is inherently designed to drive accountability and trust. Anything else is the trap of addressing symptoms, not causes. Build your management system to engender accountability and trust within it. Make it inevitable.

Accountability and trust drive engagement. It is that simple.

Though not that easy.


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