Beyond the Fairy Tale: A Contrarian’s View of Employee Engagement

Every day I get alerts on new articles, blogs and books on employee engagement.

I expected that, at some point, the content would start to slow down vs. grow, but it has not happened. There seem to be endless conversations about this topic, and you’d think that employee engagement is some sort of state of nirvana.

With all this happy talk about engagement, there needs to be a contrarian voice. Here are a few things to think about that do not show up in most employee engagement articles.

A contrarian’s history of employee engagement

Once upon a time there was something called a job for life. Along with the job for life came a relic called a pension. For those of you who can’t remember what a pension is, it’s a guaranteed monthly income, usually accompanied by health insurance, that stays with a former employee during retirement.

Oh, retirement? That’s something people used to be able to do when they worked in the job-for-life company. The deal was a job for life in exchange for loyalty. But, this happy story did not last too long when the economy came crashing down.

Companies were hit by global competition, new entrants to their markets and poor economic conditions. That meant costs had to be cut, and people had to go. Layoffs, downsizing, and RIFs (reduction in force) were the new buzzwords. Things had to change.

The mantra moved from jobs for life to the “new employment contract.” Why would an employee want a job for life when the world out there is so exciting and he/she could hop from company to company, develop skills and be happier?

I worked in HR during this transitional time, and I started teaching HR in the universities then. I was one of the people teaching the young about the new world where they should not worry about their job for life. Not only can they move from firm to firm, but also they can become entrepreneurs and be in charge of their own careers and lives.

Taking away jobs for life meant corporate labor expenses were reduced, and when the economy recovered, sales and profits started to increase while costs were minimized. And the new employment deal, with employees hopping and organizations doing layoffs, did reduce expenses.

When a lack of  loyalty takes its toll

However, the other half of the equation — the no loyalty part — was starting to take its toll on organizations. Leaders realized they didn’t want everyone to leave; they wanted the best people to be loyal and stay.

The employees, however, were doing OK with the new deal. We taught them well; these new deal employees had no reason to be loyal to one company. They watched their parents lose their jobs, and some of them are now financially supporting their parents.

But what should leaders do? They don’t want to go back to jobs for life, and they remember the days of the economic decline. Employers want it all: loyalty, love and the ability to lay off (the three L’s).

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Now comes the part of the story where the good fairy employee engagement swoops in. It’s a magical tale. Employees should start going “above and beyond” (whatever that means), become emotionally and positively attached to their organizations, and they should do all this for pretty much nothing in exchange. These people, who are under the new employment contract, will be super employees, love their companies and be engaged — just because.

My favorite quote in all the employee engagement articles was published in Fortune. It’s titled No Employee Left Behind, and in it, Randall MacDonald of IBM states: “Soon we’ll be talking about marrying all those employees to whom we’ve engaged.” It’s like the prince rescues the princess at the end of the story. Engagement and marriage — all is happy.

What is engagement anyway?

This may be my favorite part of the story. The dictionary definition of engagement is:

  1. “The act of engaging or the state of being engaged. Betrothal. Something that serves to engage; a pledge, or,
  2. A promise or agreement to be at a particular place at a particular time.”

Is this what’s needed to grow, innovate and be successful? People show up at work? That’s why engagement is starting to backfire.

We also learned that:

  • Being there is not enough.
  • Engagement has to mean something tangible vs. everything to everybody.
  • The questions, “engaged in what” and “for what” have to be answered.

Engagement just may be the wrong word, the wrong concept and it’s probably the wrong time to keep focusing on it. Business is about performance, and high performing people are needed to grow a business. High performing people are smart, and they are not easily fooled.

It’s time to go beyond the fairy tale of employee engagement and move to a more rigorous, business-focused approach to managing people at work.

Theresa M. Welbourne, PhD, is the FirsTier Banks Distinguished Professor of Business and Director of the Center of Entrepreneurship at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. She is also the founder, President, and CEO of EEPulse Inc., a human capital technology and consulting firm in the energy business -- optimizing and directing human energy for growth and innovation. She also is an adjunct professor with the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California. Theresa was awarded the 2012 Academy of Management Distinguished HR Executive Award (for contributions in research, teaching and practice). Contact her at .


12 Comments on “Beyond the Fairy Tale: A Contrarian’s View of Employee Engagement

  1. Thank you Theresa for this article. It is so refreshing, I thought I was the only HR person who felt this way.

  2. Hi Theresa.

    I’m going to have to argue engagement is completely necessary. I agree, there are mythologies around “the right %.”

    However, using the dictionary is often a poor proxy for scientific or let’s call them “really specific” definitions.

    Bottom line though, engagement is a psychological state in which people are much more likely (than the same people in a disengaged state) to achieve “flow”, more easily engage in creative behaviours, and ultimately, not only tend to do more, but tend to do better.

    If you don’t believe engagement is important, I would suggest disengaging the same high performers you speak of, and see if you observe any differences in their performance or desire to perform in the same capacity, or even same company.

    I agree though, there is a lot of fuzz and blur and noise around engagement and this distraction can make engagement hard to grapple with and respond to.

    There may even be some rare cases where you don’t (in a pure economic sense) need to care about engagement. However, I’d argue this would be a humanity risk (i.e., would anyone choose to work for a company which explicitly communicates it doesn’t care how people feel at work only how they perform?).

    However, I’d argue the litmus test is really simple:

    Do you work in an environment which regularly experiences change?
    Do you work in an environment where problems tend to be ambiguous and complex?
    Do you work in an environment where “tradition” and “doing what we always did” seems to be less effective over time?
    Do you work in an environment where non routine problem solving and creative approaches are increasingly necessary?

    If you need resilience, adaptability, and creativity, you need engagement. It’s not about the magically fantasy world of happiness…it’s about the clear linkages between the kinds of outcomes which are business imperatives and the facilitation of psychological states which are most able and likely to attain them.

  3. This is one of the best articles I’ve read on TLNT!!!! I absolutely love it!!! Definitely a keeper!!

    1. Jacque, agreed! I especially like “Employers want it all: loyalty, love and the ability to lay off (the three L’s).” Honestly, what nerve! Let’s just insist employees do their jobs to standard and leave the rest alone. You can’t expect all kinds of love and loyalty when you aren’t willing to reciprocate. Thanks, Theresa!

  4. Great insights on the difference between org cultures that value employee loyalty vs. employee engagement vs. managing people well and how we got to this challenge in 21st century workplaces. I advocate that the focus should be on managing people well will get you more efficiently to the best business results.

  5. I don’t think it’s a question of engagement vs. performance. We really should be focused on maximizing both together. As you said, Theresa, the workplace looks different these days, with pensions and life-long jobs serving as fascinating relics. Engagement is about getting your employees invested in you, and also themselves. This is not at odds with employees doing their best, but finding the intersection doesn’t necessarily mean bringing in a ping-pong table.

  6. Totally agree, unless the employee has a stake in the company’s future, and vice versa, it may very well be in the employee’s best interest to avoid engagement (e.g., emotional, psychological, etc. commitment to the job).

    I’d be interesting to see how getting laid off affects engagement at an employee’s next job. To go with your romance metaphor, it’s only the ones you love that can really hurt you… so if you’re at a job you love and your really engaged in, and they lay you off, are you actively disengaged when you get the next one?

    I imagine that without extensive proactive measures on the part of employers we’re going to see downward trends in engagement as the current generation comes to terms with the lack of job security and the, mostly correct, view that continuous job hopping is the only way toward real career development.

  7. I find it frustrating as a new deal employee that I have to pretend to be ‘engaged’ to my employer. i.e. Drink the Kool-Aid. The quarterly meetings, award banquets, annual gala’s, and other events try to promote great corporate culture while seemingly avoiding the real binding point, “I will come to work so that I can influence my realm of responsibility, make a difference, and get paid.” It is not lost on me that if I struggle or don’t perform well then I will leave, willingly or otherwise. I’d like a company/manager to have a more straightforward approach to the employee/employer relationship and get rid of the “Employee for Life!” facade.

  8. Thanks for the interesting article Dr Welbourne. The mantra of employee engagement has been specially unhelpful to the ‘quiet performer’, when engagement is seen as an end in itself (vs a means to driving performance).

    Incidentally, we had blogged on this topic a few weeks back @

  9. Theresa, I share your frustration and disappointment with Engagement as a business concept that somehow leads us into the light.

    I also ask that with all the promotion and with all the money, time, and energy spent on “increasing engagement” that the so-called engagement scores have remained fairly constant over the past 12 years.

    But here’s the thing. The same can be said of “Leadership” as a business concept and its lack of results. It’s the same with EQ, social learning, mobile learning, CRMs, LMS’s, etc

    Maybe this has more to do with the disconnect between what goes on in the boardroom and how the C suite gets “rewarded” and what goes on with employees actually doing the work?

    Geary Rummler said, “if you put a good person against a bad system, the system wins every time.”

  10. While much of what Theresa Welbourne says are characteristics of organizations today is very true, the way in which the dictionary definition of engagement is used is a bit unhelpful in an era where busy people read headlines and not a lot more. The conclusion drawn is wrong. As to the grabby titles, I feel these are unhelpful as I run into many people in business these days who when they know what your firm does – repeat the headlines back to you. These are the same people whose people suggest that such a survey is needed in their firm.

    If a survey is not focused on the right contributory factors to not only business performance but the ability of individuals and groups to achieve their best then it is possibly measuring the wrong things. That is different than saying engagement is not where our focus should be.

    We know that the best managers and leaders focus create performance oriented environments with opportunities to contribute to the organization’s goals and objectives and where the leaders and managers are aware of – and act on – the issues of concerns of their people. These environments create conditions for motivated and engaged performances. Aren’t these the very areas which engagement surveys measure along with the impediments to engagement (pay, benefits, policies, communications)?

    I find a lot to contend with the last sentence: “It’s time to go beyond the fairy tale of employee engagement and move to a
    more rigorous, business-focused approach to managing people at work.” While this sounds nice and makes for a great sound bite it’s the tyrants of business who hide behind statements all the while creating havoc and voluntary departures of good people who have better options.

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