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March 24, 2020
Employee Experience

The End of Employee Engagement [Response]

Being the one to coin a term is a highly sought after claim to fame. A close second is to be the one to declare that term as dead.

In the often superficial way that our industry seeks to define deep concepts with easy to invoke buzzwords, we often find ourselves skipping along the surface of the new hotness without developing a deep appreciation for the underlying principles that made it a "thing" in the first place. Such is the case in the recent article "The End of Employee Engagement" in Forbes. In an effort to declare the thing as dead, we run the risk of trivializing great value yet to be realized.

I'll be the first to agree with Rodd Wagner in his Forbes article "The End of Employee Engagement" that the term "Employee Engagement" has been bastardized to justify spending on all flavors of less than worthy programs that check the box but do little in the way of changing behavior. But that's not the point. What we've been given is a mutually beneficial movement for improving the relationship between companies and their employees. What could be more worthy?

The history of labor is a complicated one fraught with major abuses on workers that caused regulation and unionization (I won't argue the merits of those here). And the internal clashing and subsequent partisan negotiation still prevalent today leads to massive inefficiencies. The fact is that aligned organizations accomplish more and they do it faster and more efficiently. Any movement that helps organizations gain empathy within their ranks is a significant and positive development for both companies and people.

As Wagner says "At the heart of all of these [programs] was (and is) one of the defining characteristics of human nature: reciprocity. People are more motivated and feel a greater sense of obligation when their leaders and managers look out for their success." Perhaps the single greatest result of the rise of Employee engagement is the organizational intelligence around the impact of happy, fulfilled, enabled employees. Understanding this motivates organizations to act in the best interest of their employees more often. Is it selfish on some level? You bet. But that doesn't change the fact that employee engagement is also the right thing to do and can make the lives of a lot of people measurably better.

Wagner (and others) point out that many of today's large organizations are "doing engagement" with little tangible impact to the employee. I would argue that like a  prejudice in people, sometimes it takes a generation for enlightened understanding to take hold. With the avg. lifespan of companies on the S&P 500 coming down from 60 to 18 years over the last half a century, it's clear that the rise and fall of corporate empires is happening faster. I would submit that the greatest factor in that rise or fall is an organization's ability to attract, retain and unshackle great talent. This new generation is at the very doorstep. An organization's ability to grasp the durable principles beneath the "engagement" buzzword (and others like it) will be the difference between the brightest minds of our day running to or running from their ranks

People are more motivated and feel a greater sense of obligation when their leaders and managers look out for their success.

Engagement has and forever will be about relationships. In that, Wagner has it right. No amount of surveys or hallway posters will reform the underpinnings of a culture. But there are great tools out there that can and will make a difference when supported by committed leadership. I am of course biased towards technology in this arena given my background as the founder of a tech shop that does more than dabble in this space.

From our experience, there are a few principles – all of which are aided by some serious tech integration– that those who affect real change have in common:

Flattening Communication

Giving employees a voice to be heard and an open forum from the lowest to the highest levels of a company is empowering (and sometimes unnerving). It's a bold move and at times painful, but essential for building trust and breaking down walls that prevent real understanding and collaboration.

People Analytics

Getting beyond the survey to predictive analytics is crucial. Cultural successes and failures in large organizations often happen at a micro level before they happen at a macro level. Having listening posts and an analytical understanding of when culture or performance is outside the standard deviation (in either direction) enables larger organizations to make better decisions on when to intervene or model behaviors of individual teams or groups.

Horizontal Accountability

Employees are better aligned with each other when their accountability is focused outward and downward instead of just upwards. This dynamic sense of responsibility to the whole team leads to a higher performing organization. And with the rise of the millennial workforce, expectations on the frequency and quality of feedback are sharply rising to a level far beyond what a manager can provide on their own. Facilitating feedback and recognition among peers is essential for this new generation of employees to get the emotional stimulation they need.

Treating Employees More Like Customers

If talent is indeed the greatest indicator of success for organizations then we need to elevate their status in the organizational priorities to that of equal or greater value than the customer. This is bigger than we can unpack here. But what would the job description of a Chief Employee Experience Officer look like? This is a worthy pursuit that will pay dividends.

I believe employee engagement is anything but dead. Maybe it does need a rebrand as Wagner suggests. But we've barely scratched the surface of our collective potential for making work life better. And those organizations who figure it out will bury those that don't.

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Joe Saumweber
Joe is a thought leader on digital transformation within the enterprise with an emphasis on beautiful, usable tech that improves employee engagement, productivity and communication. Joe’s greatest passion is building great teams that build great products.

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