The Employee Engagement Trap: Why Giving More Eventually Gets You Less

There is an interesting psychological phenomenon that happens when you do something over and over. It’s called “decline effect.”

Decline effect, simply, is when you first go out and measure something then put some focus on bettering that one thing. As you continue to do it, you don’t get better results the more you do it, you actually start to see declining results.

I bring this up as I see so many articles recently written on declining employee engagement. Almost all of those articles focus on the economy and the lack of additional choices for the employee as being the primary culprit for the lower engagement scores.

A huge focus on increasing engagement

That could definitely be one answer, and it fits well with the timing of our economic collapse – although I think many companies actually saw engagement scores increase as the economy started to go south. So, maybe this psychological decline effect fits for some organizations.

But here’s my theory. Over the past 5-10 years, employee engagement has been a huge focus of HR shops around the world. An entire consultant industry has sprung up to support increasing organization’s employee engagement levels.

As organizations do this — meaning we usually go right ditch-left ditch — we focused on engagement! We began by measuring our baseline, we then implemented programs, and we saw the fruit of our labor by increased engagement scores.

Every year we went out to increase those scores, because, damn the torpedoes, we need more engagement. I don’t care if you have 100 percent engagement, Google has 105 percent engagement and we need that as well!

So we double-triple-quadruple our engagement efforts, but something strange started to happen – our scores weren’t getting better, they started to creep the other way. Oh no, they’re actually getting worse!

Why giving “more” isn’t really the answer

It has as to be those lazy managers. More leadership training is needed, and more focus, but still lower scores. Oh wait, those lazy employees, we need to change some of them as well. But, still lower scores. Must be that crappy engagement vendor we are using – go find a new one! We do, but still lower scores.

Give up?

When I bough my first house, I was very happy with it. I had never had a house and my first small, cozy house was perfect. It was 3 bedrooms, 2 baths and a lawn – and I was happy. Then I bought my next house and it had more — it had more bedrooms, more bathrooms, more lawn – and I was even more happy!

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Then I bought my next house and it had all my last house had, but also more garage and it was on the water and it had more space. But, I really wasn’t happier – it seemed like more space created some issues as well – because it cost more, it took longer to clean, and it was just a lot more work.

Eventually, giving more gets you less

We spend so much time and effort on making our employees happy. New chair – you’ll be more comfortable. Free lunch – you look hungry. Let me wash your cat – you look overworked. Have a free massage – you look tired. Let me fix your boss – he doesn’t seem very nice.

Then all of sudden we don’t have more to offer or anything else to make better. It’s not that our employees weren’t engaged before all of this, because they were. We just wanted more, but more comes with a price.

To keep more, you have to keep giving more and eventually you’ll run into a wall where more isn’t the answer. When more won’t give you more, it will actually start giving you less.

Employee Engagement is tricky. Don’t fall into the “more” trap; you won’t like what you will create!

Come see Tim Sackett speak on What Your CEO Wished HR Would Do at the TLNT Transform conference in Austin, TX Feb. 26-28, 2012. Click here for more information on attending this event. 

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.


7 Comments on “The Employee Engagement Trap: Why Giving More Eventually Gets You Less

  1. Tim, I totally agree with this.  That’s why Radclyffe provides organizations with a model to engage employees by providing a construct to raise the level of performance with an employee-driven methodology.  We believe, and have seen ongoing results, of employee engagement and innovation, personal and team accountability and loyalty when employees know what is expected – where they are right now vs. where they need to be with a blueprint of exaclty how to get there.  And, to top it off, they have designed it…it’s exciting for them, builds self-esteem and buy-in!  It reduces the need for management intervention to meet performance expectations too!  Questions?  Feel free to contact me

    1. Kirsten, fascinating article. What I’m really interested in is the engagement scores that went up during the economic climate. For us, belief, or an authentic cause, is one of the most sustainable ways of creating sustainable engagement and I believe we saw this happening in the recession. Suddenly everyone has a cause to rally around – even if it was short-lived. 

      Engagement is so often not about doing more, but refining why people are “doing” in the first place, and using it as a tool for betterment.

  2. The key is finding out why people are disengaged and, if it’s within the organization’s power, fix it.  Aligning people’s jobs with the company’s goals, open and frequesnt communication and feedback, and rewarding success are the keys to an engaged workforce.

  3. My concern with the theory is that it starts with the premise that studying engagement is followed by “giving”. Giving employees more stuff drives employee contentment….not engagement. The frame of mind that engagement can be bought with stuff is what will have a diminishing return on engagement scores–not the long-term measurement of it.

  4. Hold it. Employee engagement is not the same thing as employee SATISFACTION. I agree that more=less can be a danger if you are aiming for increasing employee SATISFACTION. But I don’t think that the decline-effect is appliable on employee ENGAGEMENT. 

  5. Good article with so many possible tangents to take, so let’s take one: the framework, or the giving framework. True, the more you give the more people expect. If the framework is about giving discrete things on separate occassions you’ll simply run out of “things”. However, when the “thing” is more like an “event” then you are only limited by the employees’ imaginations. Let them submit event ideas and do something fun and different each time. This doesn’t go stale. Suggested agenda: transparent “state of the state” talk from the org lead, an HR topic, recognition time, and then a fun, competitive activity organized by the event planners. My delivery center did that (and many other things) and we had the highest engagement scores across all of Accenture during the 2 years I was the lead. While I was happy to lead in engagement, I was more delighted with having the lowest attrition numbers in the region – *that* is the real measure of employee engagement. Whem someone considered leaving because of a higher offer we had volumes of things to discuss regarding the importance of “where” they work in addition to “how much” they were paid. In this context they almost always chose to remain part of the family we had created.

  6. I do see your point to some degree Tim. It’s just that
    giving away freebies, isn’t quite what I’d class as engagement? Effective
    engagement would be more along the lines of praise and acknowledgement, less criticism,
    making people’s ideas heard, keeping people informed and up-to-date… etc

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