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Guest Writer - Paul Herr
Principal Consultant at Paul Herr Consulting

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

By Paul Herr, Author of “Primal Management: Unraveling the Secrets of Human Motivation that Drive High Performance.”

I’ve been studying human motivation for 40years—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 these two 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 tithe 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 important to business success—but what about engaged employees? Does it make sense to measure and improve employee engagement?


The Employee-Engagement Story

Now things get a bit complicated. The term “employee engagement” was popularized by the Gallup Organization—the same respected organization that publishes polls during political races. Gallup got the attention of the business community by aiming its statistical prowess at human motivation about30 years ago. Prior attempts to connect“employee satisfaction “surveys to business performance failed to find much of a connection. This meant that satisfied employees were not anymore productive than unsatisfied employees.

Gallup embarked on a decades-long quest to find a better survey for measuring employee motivation—one that WOULD connect with business outcomes. It began by reviewing all of the top theories dealing with human motivation by people likeMaslow (hierarchy of needs), Seligman (positive psychology), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (professor who researched high-performing people and wrote“Flow”), and Daniel Kahneman (cognitive psychologist and Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist).  

Gallup then created hundreds of questions based on these theories and started testing them to see which ones statistically correlated with business performance. The result of this gargantuan effort was theGallup Q-12 survey—12 questions that DID relate to business success. Companies that scored in the upper quartile of the Q-12 survey consistently outperformed the companies that scored in the lower quartile by a large margin. Over the years, this survey and many others like it, have correlated with a wide range of desirable business outcomes such as 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 “employee engagement” surveys became the new gold standard for measuring motivation at work. Here is a quote from Deloitte’s 2015 “Global Human Capital Trends” report that captures the general attitude toward “employee engagement” in the business community.

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

This means that employee motivation has finally gotten the attention of the C-suite. They “get it.”  

Still not convinced? Airport titled “The Impact of Employee Engagement on Performance,” appeared in the April, 2016 edition of the HarvardBusiness Review. It summarized interviews with 550 executives from large to mid-sized companies and concluded:  

“Employee engagement has become a top business priority for senior executives. In this rapid cycle economy, business leaders know that having a high-performing workforce is essential for growth and survival.

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

Mike Rickheim, vice president of talent management at Newell Rubbermaid, a global consumer goods company, explained that engagement “is not just a warm, fuzzy thing. It’s about giving people the tools they need to succeed in their careers, which in turn drives the outcomes that we’re seeking in the marketplace. When you look at it through that lens, when people have the tools they need to succeed, feel good about their personal growth opportunities, and receive the appropriate rewards and recognition for their contributions, it’s a win-win proposition.”

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

One possible “better approach” in the pipeline was developed at Harvard by Nitin Nohira, the dean of the HarvardBusiness School, and Paul Lawrence, an organizational-behavior pioneer. The Harvard approach will be described in subsequent posts in this series, because we think the Harvard team has cracked the “motivational code “and has the“answer key” for improving employee engagement.

In his next blog, Paul will examine the confusion swirling around the term “employee engagement.”

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