4 Steps to Make Sure You Aren’t Making Engagement Optional

Employee engagement is big business.

In fact, the recent research done by the Society for Human Resources Management and reported on here at TLNT revealed that employee engagement is the number one concern among HR professionals. Clearly, we have become convinced that employee engagement should be a primary outcome of our management and leadership practices at our organizations.

When you ask most of the experts to define employee engagement, some part of the definition will include the application of discretionary effort by the employee. Translated to normal language, that means that employees are so into their jobs that they are willing to go above and beyond the call of duty on a regular basis.

Improvement or entitlement?

That sounds great, doesn’t it? Having a whole company of people who are willingly giving more than is expected of them is very appealing, hence our attraction to the idea of employee engagement.

The problem when it comes to engagement is in how we are approaching its measurement and management.

If you’ve worked in mid to large-sized companies, you are familiar with the practice of employee engagement surveys and you’ve seen the fire drill that often accompanies these efforts. While surveying employees is a good thing and desiring engagement is also a good thing, the problem underlying these engagement surveys is that they are assuming that it’s a company’s responsibility to engage each employee.

The practice of surveying for employee engagement walks a fine line between improvement effort and creation of entitlement. The fundamental question that marks the difference between the two is this: when did being engaged in your job become optional?

Isn’t this what we pay people for?

When you step back for a moment and think about it, isn’t engagement what we are paying for when we bring someone onto our payroll as an employee? Shouldn’t employee engagement be a requirement of any job? Of course it should. And, at one time in our history, I think engagement may have been expected.  That appears to have changed.

Employee engagement is an individual choice that each employee makes on a daily basis (either consciously or subconsciously). They choose to give their all, to slack off or something in between. It’s their choice. Managers can’t create engagement any more than they can create happiness or turn lead into gold.

What they can do is make engagement a requirement of the job. Great managers and leaders recognize that a disengaged employee is making a choice to be that way.

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In order for that same employee to become engaged, they have to make a different choice (or series of choices). The leader’s responsibility is to help each individual make that choice and hold them accountable to it. If an employee won’t make the choice to engage, then they are making the choice to move on. There can be no third choice where an employee hangs around, waiting to see if the company will give them enough stuff or make enough changes for them to decide to give over the gift of their engagement. That’s called emotional blackmail and it shouldn’t be tolerated.

Warning signs you’re making it optional

Engagement can’t be optional, at least not if you intend to have a high performing company that attracts the best talent. If you are on board, you are all in. That’s a reasonable expectation for someone to whom you are paying a salary.

Next time your organization is about to head down the path of conducting an employee engagement survey, consider whether your process is making engagement optional for your employees. Look for these warning signs:

  • You talk about using the results of the survey to “drive higher engagement” rather than to drive better performance.
  • You have a process where a leader can create an after-survey action plan without extensive input from their team thus implying that engagement is the manager’s sole responsibility.
  • You train managers on how to action plan, but not on how to coach employees for their commitment to their work and their results.
  • After receiving the results of your survey, you spend more time focusing on what environmental changes you can make to “improve engagement” and little or no time talking about how to work directly with your disengaged employees on how to help them decide to either be fully on board or out the door.

4 steps you can take

If you really want to have an impact on your organization through engagement, It may require that you undo some damage that you’ve inadvertently done already. If you discover that you have indeed made engagement optional at your company, you aren’t alone. And, it’s not too late to do something about it.

Here’s how where to start:

  1. Decide to make engagement a mandatory requirement of working at your company.
  2. To do this, you must get very clear on what engagement is for your company. This means having a clear definition and helping leaders and employees understand what it looks like.
  3. Then, teach your managers how to coach employees on their decision to be fully engaged and what to do if they are not.
  4. Finally, when you conduct your engagement survey, make it less about measuring engagement and more about discovering how to help your best employees to be more effective at driving the company forward.

Employee engagement is good, powerful even. So, why not expect make it an expectation?

Jason Lauritsen a keynote speaker, author and advisor.  He is an employee engagement and workplace culture expert who will challenge you to think differently. 

A former corporate human resources executive, Jason has dedicated his career to helping leaders build organizations that are good for both people and profits. 

Most recently, he led the research team for Quantum Workplace’s Best Places to Work program where he has studied the employee experience at thousands of companies to understand what the best workplaces in the world do differently than the rest. 

Jason is the co-author of the book, Social Gravity: Harnessing the Natural Laws of Relationships. Connect with Jason at www.JasonLauritsen.com


7 Comments on “4 Steps to Make Sure You Aren’t Making Engagement Optional

  1. Thanks, Jason, for using language every employee (and manager) can understand rather than using HR speak. I like to think of engagement as a one coin – one side belongs to the employee, the other side belongs to the manager. In other words, both employee and manager share this currency called “engagement.:

  2. Hold on partner. This article was a roller coaster. My reaction went like this: Yeah. Amen. Whoa. Wait. Ummmm. Well. No. Heck no.

    The relationship between
    worker and company is like other relationships; it requires give and take
    on both sides in order for everyone to win. Measuring
    engagement helps identify weaknesses in those relationships, so that employees
    and managers can work on solutions together. Expecting employees to be engaged
    is one thing. Hiring employees who are likely to be engaged is smart. Telling
    employees, “you must be engaged; it’s mandatory” sounds like an
    abusive relationship where someone says, “it’s mandatory that you love
    me.” And it makes me want to love that person less. Love is a two-way street. But this
    perspective seems to merely reverse the direction of a one-way street approach.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Greg.  I can see how you could read it that way.  Perhaps I can restate it a little differently using your relationship example.  If we are going to get married, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to expect you to love me.  If you don’t love me, then we either need to fix that or we need to get a divorce because option 3, staying in a loveless, dysfunctional marriage is not okay.  Does that work any better for you?  

      1. Option 3 is certainly bad….and cancerous to an entire firm. But I’m still not convinced that “do this or else” is a scalable management model.

        Bottom line is…for marriage to work…Employees must love and be lovable.
        Employers must love and be lovable.
        The accountability is shared. The best workplaces are those that accomplish this.

    2. Great points! If you mandate “engagement” you get obedience – exactly what you asked for and no more. If you manipulate employees, you get game players. If you want people to bring their hearts to work, to care about the job, be creative, and join in building its future, then you have to care about them and their future. It’s a two way street in any case, but you need to pick the right street.

  3. Well written article Jason, but I think I need to agree with Greg.  The missing element in the article is choice.  Engagement is a choice that can never be mandated. The only thing you can mandate is compliance.  In the marriage example, you cannot mandate someone else to love you.  You can expect it, but all the expectation in the world is not enough if you’re not doing anything to earn it.  Your partner has to trust you, respect you, yes love you enough to bring his/her whole self to the relationship.  Your absolutely right that a loveless relationship is not desirable.  In the corporate setting, if a company doesn’t own up to their side of the relationship, the best employees will simply leave for a better partner.  Then you’re just stuck with the ones that couldn’t find a better mate. 

    A couple other comments…
    It’s actually not what we pay people for.  There’s plenty of data confirming all the money in the world does not create engagement.  You need to pay people sufficiently to stay in the game, but then, what engages people is challenge, meaning, and autonomy.  These are all things that the company has considerable influence over.  These are also the things that create breakthrough results for the business.

    I do agree that traditionally companies put the accountability in the wrong place in Action Planning.  My approach is to create shared accountability, with grass roots effort and senior level championship/ownership.  It’s a 2 way street, and companies that want to win take ownership for creating a reason for their best employees to engage and give their best.  If you do all of that, and they still don’t engage, then by all means, skip the mandate and just go ahead and fire ’em.

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