Employee Engagement Approach Today Breeds Stagnation

by Timothy R. Clark

Does it do any good to idly yearn to be engaged–to wait expectantly for the organization to engage you? Sure. Just expect to wait a long time. Disengaged workers and intrinsic motivation

One of the keys to employee engagement is to understand that engagement and equilibrium are contrary states. You have to choose one or the other. 

This week McGraw-Hill officially launched a world-wide release of our new book: The Employee Engagement Mindset. My research team and I spent the last five years studying a cohort of highly engaged employees in 50 companies and across 13 different industries. Our conclusion: The current approach to employee engagement needs to be turned on its head. It often breeds dependency and stagnation. 

The philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, noted that humans tend to seek “a state of well-ordered, painless, contented, self-perpetuating equilibrium.” Humans also want to be anxiously engaged in their organizations. They want to make a difference.

There’s the dilemma.

Who owns employee engagement? Many organizations have become contaminated with a patently false concept of employee engagement that puts the primary burden on the organization. In the 1830s, French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “The manufacturer asks nothing of the workman but his labor; the workman expects nothing from him but his wages. The one contracts no obligation to protect, nor the other to defend; and they are not permanently connected either by habit or by duty.”

How depressing! Today, great organizations want more than your labor; they want your full-tilt participation. Amazingly, that’s exactly what most employees want to give. But most don’t. And we wanted to know why.  

The Benevolent Organization

Imagine that you work for the most benevolent organization on earth—an organization that believes in and practices fanatical employee support. The organization has anointed you with a big title, a big office, and a big salary. It assigns people to clean your house, do your laundry, and file your tax returns. There are piano lessons for your kids, personal trainers and home decorators, a pet photo contest every year, unlimited spa treatments, extended family cruises, and ice cream socials. Not least, you have a great boss. In the history of the world, there has never been a more successful organization, and you are exquisitely blessed to be right in the middle of it.

So let’s ask: Are you engaged? Are you passionately connected and actively participating in the organization and the work you do? Do you bring your best game to work every day? Answer: even in those circumstances, you only have a 25 percent chance of being highly engaged.

The organization may lavish you with perks, but those perks don’t hold the key to engagement. Feeding the pleasure center of the brain through extrinsic rewards doesn’t engage a person and bring real, lasting fulfillment. At best, it creates security and short-term pleasure or hedonic well-being. This is a very different thing from true and sustained engagement, which is the comprehensive expression of your motivation and desire to contribute.

Nobody can instill in you deep and rich and vibrant engagement. You have to do it. You should do it.

Timothy R. Clark is considered a global authority in executive development, change management and employee engagement. A powerful and highly sought-after speaker, Dr. Clark speaks to organizations and advises leaders around the world. Dr. Clark is the author of “Epic Change” (Jossey-Bass 2008), named the top management book on the subject of change. Dr. Clark is a former CEO, earned a doctorate from Oxford University, and was an academic all-American football player at Brigham Young University


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