Guest Writer - Paul Herr
Principal Consultant at Paul Herr Consulting
September 11, 2018

Is “Employee Engagement” a Passing Fad or a Better Way of Doing Business?

By Paul Herr, Author of “PrimalManagement: Unraveling the Secrets of Human Motivation that Drive HighPerformance.”

I’ve been studying human motivation for 40 years—long before the term, “employee engagement,” was coined, so let me provide some perspective on the employee-engagement movement.  

An engaged employee is HIGHLY MOTIVATED.  Gallup describes engaged employees as willing to go beyond the call of duty—to figuratively knock down walls for their organizations.  Since employee engagement is tied to motivation, let’s start there.

Motivation is obviously good for business. Consider thesetwo endpoints on a scale of zero motivation to optimal motivation.  

ZERO MOTIVATION:  How much work would get done if employees had zero motivation? Well, with zero motivation they would not get out of bed in the morning, so zero work would get done and all companies would go bankrupt.  Pretty logical, wouldn’t you agree?

OPTIMAL MOTIVATION:  Now, the other end of the spectrum—how much work would get done if every employee had his/her “head in the game?”  In this case, everyone from the janitor tothe CEO would do their work faster, better and smarter, and with a good attitude—so productivity, innovation, customer satisfaction and profits would sky rocket.  Are you with me?  

Not only is motivation important, it is the “master metric”that drives everything happening inside companies.  If companies can improve motivation, ALL desirable, financial, operational and HR metrics should logically follow suit.  Motivation therefore deserves a privileged spot, front-and-center on the management dashboard and executives should track it religiously.

I think we can agree that motivated employees are hugely importantto business success—but what about engaged employees?  Does it make sense to measure and improveemployee engagement?

The Employee-Engagement Story

Now things get a bit complicated.  The term “employee engagement” waspopularized by the Gallup Organization—the same respected organization thatpublishes polls during political races. Gallup got the attention of the business community by aiming itsstatistical prowess at human motivation about 30 years ago.  Prior attempts to connect “employee satisfaction”surveys to business performance failed to find a connection.  This meant that satisfied employees were not anymore productive than unsatisfied employees.

Gallup embarked on a decades-long quest to find a bettersurvey for measuring employee motivation—one that WOULD connect with business outcomes.  It began by reviewing all of the toptheories dealing with human motivation by people like Maslow (hierarchy ofneeds), Seligman (positive psychology), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (professor who researchedhigh-performing people and wrote “Flow”), and Daniel Kahneman (cognitivepsychologist and Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist).  

Gallup then created hundreds of questions based on thesetheories and started testing them to see which ones statistically correlatedwith business performance.  The result ofthis gargantuan effort was the Gallup Q-12 survey—12 questions that DID relateto business success.  Companies thatscored in the upper quartile of the Q-12 survey consistently outperformed thecompanies that scored in the lower quartile by a large margin.  Over the years, this survey and many otherslike it, have correlated with a wide range of desirable business outcomes suchas these:

·        profitability,

·        productivity,

·        market share,

·        customer service,

·        talent retention,

·        strategy execution,

·        individual performance,

·        team performance,

·        reduced costs,

·        reduced on the job accidents, and

·        reduced healthcare costs.    

The business community stood up and took notice—and “employeeengagement” surveys became the new gold standard for measuring motivation atwork.   Here is a quote from Deloitte’s2015 “Global Human Capital Trends” report that captures the general attitudetoward “employee engagement” in the business community.

“This year employee engagement and cultureissues exploded onto the scene, rising to become the No. 1 challenge around theworld.”

This means that employee motivation has finally gotten theattention of the C-suite.  They “getit.”  

Still not convinced?  Areport titled “The Impact of Employee Engagement on Performance,” appeared inthe April, 2016 edition of the Harvard Business Review.  It summarized interviews with 550 executivesfrom large to mid-sized companies and concluded:  

“Employeeengagement has become a top business priority for senior executives. In thisrapid cycle economy, business leaders know that having a high-performingworkforce is essential for growth and survival.

Theyrecognize that a highly engaged workforce can increase innovation,productivity, and bottom-line performance while reducing costs related tohiring and retention in highly competitive talent markets….

MikeRickheim, vice president of talent management at Newell Rubbermaid, a globalconsumer goods company, explained that engagement “is not just a warm, fuzzything. It’s about giving people the tools they need to succeed in theircareers, which in turn drives the outcomes that we’re seeking in themarketplace. When you look at it through that lens, when people have the toolsthey need to succeed, feel good about their personal growth opportunities, andreceive the appropriate rewards and recognition for their contributions, it’s awin-win proposition.”

In conclusion, motivation is obviously important to businesssuccess.  This will be true as long humanbeings populate the workplace. Employee-engagement surveys have repeatedly proven their ability tomeasure the important components of motivation that pertain to businesssuccess, so they are here to stay as well—at least until something even-bettercomes along.  

One possible “better approach” in the pipeline was developedat Harvard by Nitin Nohira, the dean of the Harvard Business School, and PaulLawrence, an organizational behavior pioneer. The Harvard approach will be described in subsequent posts in thisseries, because we think the Harvard team has cracked the “motivational code”and has the “answer key” for improving employee engagement.

In our next blog, we examine the connection between engagement/motivation and human emotion.

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