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What are the common misconceptions about employee engagement?

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18th Jun 2015
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I can remember the moment as if it was yesterday. I had done all of my preparation. I had bought the ring that I knew she loved…and that I could afford. I had picked the right spot and waited for the right moment. I then dropped down on one knee and uttered those famous words, “I am engaging you!”

Clearly I didn’t. That would be ridiculous. That isn’t how it works. I can’t engage someone…no one can. You can make and offer that, if attractive enough, someone chooses to engage with, but that’s the best that any of us can do.

This is a principle that we all know intuitively, and yet the number of times I hear people talking about what they need to do to ‘engage their staff.’ The net result is usually some form of reward and recognition, perhaps the occasional smattering of ‘fun’ (even though it may be a little forced) and then, when the balance sheet allows it, some sort of pay rise. This is all then keenly measured with an annual ‘engagement’ survey – 50 questions to see what people thought of the year…which in all honesty more likely reflect the last three months, or worst case scenario, the mood that day.

So what are some of the common misconceptions? What are the mistakes we keep making?

1.      Check your bank balance

In case you were wondering, she said ‘yes’ and so each February I have the role of choosing and writing a suitable Valentine’s Day card. Whilst the range of choices varies year on year, I have never and will never choose the card that says, ‘Because I Had To…’ Any sentiment of valuing another person immediately evaporates when it is done out of duty or obligation.

That said I have known colleagues say staff should feel valued and engaged simply because they get a pay cheque! Let’s be clear…a pay cheque doesn’t add to engagement. In many engagement surveys it is one of the ‘below the line’ questions, that aren’t included in the overall result. It is a bare minimum. It is what is expected and so should never be seen as an engagement tool.

2.      Pay = engagement

If I add pay then people will be more engaged. It’s a fairly common thought, but if we extrapolate this out a little it makes a little bit less sense. If this were true, then the sub-text is that people only come to work for pay…and if that is the culture of a workplace, then you’re in BIG trouble! Pay is clearly a contributory factor, but is the not (principally) an engagement tool. Engagement with work is more closely linked to how motivated someone feels – and this driven in the most part by three things:

1.      Mastery – am I getting better at my job?

2.      Purpose – why I am doing this?

3.      Autonomy – can I make my own decisions?

Getting this ‘trinity’ right (which we don’t have time to go into now) drives an engaged and motivated culture far more than simply adding money to a pay cheque, which can in some situations, has the opposite effect. Additional money can lead to a sense of panic, ‘what if I am not good enough’ or the stress of worrying that more will now be expected.

3.      Commendations work

I think we can all imagine the scene. A group of staff huddled together and a manager reading out the commendations that make one colleague stand out. The colleague looks slightly uncomfortable, the manager seems to be reading a script (badly) and the rest of the people there look, at best, only vaguely interested. This is then followed by a muted round of applause and then a slightly forced handshake and a ‘well done’. So, who goes back the day job better for that event? The manager…having ticked the box of ‘recognition’? The colleague…recognised in front of their peer group? Those that watched…now aware of what it is that makes someone worthy of recognition? Or, possibly…no one really benefited.

Commendations, though popular, usually simply relay a list of facts. Facts that the majority of listeners cannot truly engage with and will have no emotional connection to. Thus, after the ripple of applause has died down, the impact has also gone. So what was the point? Is it to simply, publicly dangle a carrot?

This process can work so much more effectively when the facts are weaved into a story…a well told story. The emotional connection this brings can actually trick the brain. The listener can barely distinguish the emotion of listening to a well-told story, to having been there themselves. In doing so, it evokes the same emotions as if it is their story that is being told…and it feels good. The net result of this is that people want to feel those emotions again, so seek out opportunities…and in doing so become more engaged.

4.      The day job doesn’t matter

People come to work to do a good job…and often do. Don’t wait until someone has done a GREAT job before thanking them or telling their story. Great work can go unrecognised if people are told – implicitly or explicitly – that they are just doing their job. As such, no one strives to do more. No one goes the extra mile…why would you bother? And tall poppy syndrome sets in. No more ‘stand outs’. But then against this backdrop, the ‘projectionist’ culture can quickly develop.

I love films and love going to the cinema and when I do, I almost always leave chatting about the actors, action sequences or script. The projectionist, who shows me the film doesn’t get a second thought. As long as they do their job…perfectly…I won’t give then a second thought. But beware the day that they make a mistake. Suddenly all eyes are on them. Everyone is talking about them…and not in a good way!

And this is how it can go with work. No recognition for a brilliant day job, but wrath and consequence when things go wrong…and very quickly you have a very disengaged population.

So what is the answer to all of this? What is the magic bullet? Sadly there isn’t one. My wife chose to get engaged because she found the offer attractive enough. Not perfect and I was just having to make the best of what I had…but somehow, it was attractive enough and we got engaged.

As you look around, where are the attraction points at your workplace? What are the things designed to draw people, so that they can choose to engage themselves. A proactively engaged workforce will deliver far more to the customer and the company than one that has been dragged…or one that is drifting. So, which will you have?

Nathan Dring is head of learning and engagement at Asda Global Shared Services (UK). 

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