Employee Engagement: The Means, or The End?

Please take two deep breaths to calm yourself and find a place of zen before answering the below question.

All calmed? Good. From that place of inner peace and quiet, ask yourself which of the following two statements you more strongly agree with:

(Answer instantly, don’t over-think):

  1. The purpose of business is to make people happy
  2. The purpose of people is to make business happy

Make a note somewhere of your answer. Now let’s talk about it.

My guess is you chose #1. Maybe not because you totally agree with it, but because #2 seems so absurd. Of course people have purposes beyond being economic cogs; it’s insulting to our humanity to think otherwise. (Anyhow, that’s how I think of it).

Joseph Campbell had it right when he said:

“We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget that the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it’s all about.”

And yet: that is not how we behave. Let’s pick on the employee engagement movement as one example [1]: over and over in business, we confuse the means with the ends. And it’s not pretty.

Business Treats People Like Means to an End

A typical post asks, “Why is employee engagement important?” and answers the question thus:

Engaged employees learn more, grow faster, and show more initiative than employees who are not. They are committed to finding solutions, solve problems, and improve business processes.

Therefore, employee engagement is strongly linked to business performance!

All that’s missing is the QED: Obviously, the purpose of employee engagement is to improve business performance. A happy employee is a productive employee; we want you happy because we want you making money for us. Left unspoken is, “and if your being unhappy led to greater productivity, we’d go for unhappy in a heartbeat.”

There is an unending corporate appetite for this sort of rationalization. Here’s the abstract of an article from The American Society for Quality:

Abstract: Weak workforce engagement can lead to poor retention, increased absenteeism and lowered productivity.

Or, from Corporate Rewards, answering the question “Why Bother with Engagement?”

90% of the employees at the World’s Most Admired Companies identified their company as very effective or effective at fostering high levels of employee engagement. Reason enough to bother with engagement…

Organisations need to bother because engagement is the holy grail of workplace relations. It is a virtuous circle: engaged employee; better results; deeper engagement.

There are thousands of such examples; enough, you know that’s true.

The behavioral instinct to subordinate people is evident in the very language of HR. People are not called people, they’re called human “resources”. Note that the word “human” is the adjective, modifying the noun “resources.”

The ante got raised about a decade ago when we started talking about Human Capital. The substitution of “capital” for “resources” was part and parcel of a general reduction of all things business to financial terms. Manufacturing, services, geographies, cultures, people—who cares, it can all be reduced to the single fungible terminology of net-present-financial value. It’s all about the money.

It Wasn’t Always This Way

You may think Joseph Campbell, the scholar of myths cited earlier, doesn’t have enough business credentials to be cited here. If so, let’s try Peter Drucker, the quintessential business writer. He famously said:

The purpose of a company is to create a customer…the only profit center is the customer.

Dale Carnegie had much the same idea when he phrased his paradoxical aphorisms about success coming from focus on others.

Our ideas today about the role of people in business are more culturally-driven than we like to think. There is no revealed truth that says for once and for all what the purpose of business is, or must be: it is what we choose to believe that determines what we get out of business.

We have been choosing a politics, culture and way of business life for some time now that subordinates human benefit to the aggrandizement of corporate entities. That belief system has gotten so imbued in our language and behaviors that we notice it about as much as a fish notices the water it swims in.

It’s Time to Re-Think the Ends and Means of Business

While we’re mesmerized by the sloppy but energetic political revolutions in the Middle East, there’s an equally energetic (and yes, often sloppy) revolution in business thinking going on.

Two widely known examples are Michael Porter and Mark Kramer’s Shared Value concept, and Umair Haque’s Capitalist Manifesto. And while I’ve critiqued their sloppiness, there’s no question they’re heading in the right direction, and spreading a lot of heat and light along the way.

There are other revolutionaries out there. Robert Eccles is spearheading an amazing drive to integrate corporate performance reporting. Chris Brogan and HubSpot Marketing are revolutionizing the notion of marketing and strategy to become truly customer-centric—not customer-centric like a vulture, but for the sake of the customer.

Dave Brock talks about sales as being at a new inflection point: this inflection point, unlike the two prior ones, is driven by the customer—not the company.

And speaking of inflection points, the new Dean of the Harvard Business School uses that same term to describe what faces HBS, which implies a radically different set of priorities.

The Point of Being Happy is to Be Happy: Not to Increase ROI

There’s nothing wrong with making money, creating businesses, having fabulously healthy economies. I’m all for it. Capitalism is a great model.

But let’s start getting our means and ends back in a row: when we start justifying happiness in terms of corporate ROI, something has gone horribly wrong.

Happiness and ROI go together. We should resist making one solely the means and the other solely the end, but let’s remember: if and when we’re forced to prioritize, the true end is happiness.


[1] I’m going to casually equate employee engagement and happiness here, as do many casual authors. EE fans may quibble about that, but the logic of this post applies to each; pick your preferred words.


13 replies
  1. Ben Butler
    Ben Butler says:

    Unfortunately a lot of businesses see the benefits of engagement and bring in point-earning programs to try and get their employees to work harder. Is that the kind of culture that truly engages though? Do you want a team of point-chasers?

    Employees can tell when a carrot is being dangled in front of them. They don’t see themselves as “human capital”, and they will resent being treated like this. We believe that true employee motivation requires thought and passion. You can tell the companies who really care and those who don’t.

    Ben Butler
    Rewards Nation

  2. Mike Leffler
    Mike Leffler says:

    Thanks for boiling things down to their essence, Charlie. Very thought provoking piece. It keeps things in proper perspective (and I always welcome a J. Campbell reference!).

  3. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    Delighted to hear similar thoughts from someone toiling in those vineyards; you’ve got more credibility than I do in that arena. I agree–what you’re pointing out is an all-too-often tendency to focus on the metrics rather than the thing being measured, a second-order indicator. We forget that things like “thought and passion,” as you put it, drive the rest. Intent matters. Get that right, and the rest flows as byproducts. Get it wrong, and you’ll never incent/measure/carrot-stick your way into right organizations.

    Mike, dee-lighted to see another Joseph Campbell fan. Anyone who doesn’t know him and who is even vaguely inclined to hear a true master talk about the meaning of human life via mythology throughout the ages will enjoy him. Check it out.

  4. John Gies
    John Gies says:


    I like the idea that it is time to rethink the ends and means of business. Since the early 1980’s it seems we have decided that the purpose of a business is to make as much money as possible, everything else be damned.

    Yet, when I meet happy business people, they have a business that is producing a sustainable income that allows them and their employees if they have any to live a decent life, to do good work, to feel as if the work they do makes a difference. When I meet business leaders in larger organization there is a sense of tension and anxiety of striving if you will.

    I think most entrepreneurs go into business out of love. The love of their new idea or the idea that they can change the world. Sure we all have dreams of the jackpot but the impetus is their noble purpose. And then as time goes by, organizations change their focus.

    I think Drucker got it mostly right. The customer is a big piece of the equation. But it is also important to care for the other piece of the equation… your own organization. Because there are always at least two parts to the equation. If our people don’t feel cared for why would they care for the customer.

    But at the end of the day it is also important to have fun, to enjoy to feel as if you are contributing to something larger than just a job.

    Thanks again for the thoughts,

  5. Ed Drozda
    Ed Drozda says:

    For the record I chose #1. I also believe that our personal ROI is the spark plug that keeps the engine running. To put it another way- if not for good people with self-sustained commitment and ambition (such things are born of fulfillment and happiness) what would any society ever accomplish?

    No surprise here Charlie, once again you have hit the proverbial nail on the head.

  6. Mihai Rosu
    Mihai Rosu says:

    Hi there and thanks for this important article.
    More and more employees are saying that their bosses put them work much more than they do it before, and the salary remains the same.
    Of course people should be happy when they are working, but to have a happy work you can’t stay with that stress “What if my boss will say that i’m not doing a good job?”

  7. S. Anthony Iannarino
    S. Anthony Iannarino says:

    Excellent post, Charlie. There is no question that businesses perform better when we capture our employee’s hearts and minds, and not simply their hands and backs. No mean feat!

    But a quick word on Capitalism and how we divide the value created. First and foremost, capitalism is its own reward; it is already making the necessary contribution to society. There isn’t another system, be it religious, philosophical, or economic that has ever done as much to lift people out of poverty as has capitalism. Period.

    I understand the tendency to look at corporations and to determine that they are benefitting at the expense of some other segments of society–especially when there is such a disparity of wages between the top and the bottom of major, mostly-public corporations. It’s too much for the comments section of a blog, but many of the complaints against capitalism would be solved if the cronyism, the great influence of government policy, and the ability to socialize losses were removed (none of which have anything whatsoever to do with capitalism, and all of which are present in every competing system).

    It isn’t capitalism that needs fixed. It is, as always, the behavior of some of the people that needs the adjusting–this includes many or most of those in government who believe they should do the adjusting.

  8. John Gies
    John Gies says:


    Well said. Capitalism is really neither good nor bad. Rather it is how individuals use the system. The question then becomes (for me) is it back to the idea that we are fighting human nature, (greed, lust, pride, etc). And if so how do we “adjust behavior” of those that damage the economy, the environment and individuals through their behavior?

    Do we put BP on trial for manslaughter in the case of 11 dead in the Gulf? Or do we just let the “Market” handle it? How well has that worked?

  9. Chris Downing
    Chris Downing says:

    One of the leading retailers in the UK likes to talk of their soft ‘family’ ethos – everyone is a ‘partner’ in the business. “It’s like a big family.”

    In good times that must feel great, but the underpinnings are not questioned. Recently, in these tight times, they needed to make some staff redundant.

    So let me understand how that works as a “Family”. Isn’t that rather like me telling my kids, “Guys, Dad’s hitting bad times at work; customers aren’t buying so much. Now we have, sat around this table, the four of you children, your Mum and me. Mum and I are staying because we run things. But two of you need to go to the orphange. Who’s it going to be?”

  10. Derek Irvine, Globoforce
    Derek Irvine, Globoforce says:

    Important post, Charles. And validated by Gallup research which found causation (not just correlation) between engagement and financial success — engaged employees generate more financial success, but just because employees work for financially successful companies, they’re not more engaged.

    Quite interesting. Citation and more on the research here: http://bit.ly/ga6VNP

  11. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Derek, I’m not sure what you think the Gallup poll was validating; I don’t think it was this post.

    I was criticizing the attempt to justify engagement on the grounds of increased profitability; when you cite research showing the causal relationship between engagement and profitability–aren’t you fanning the flames I was trying to criticize?

    I respect and believe that Gallup data that you are citing, that there’s a causal link between engagement and profitability. It’s good for everyone to see and understand that.

    But aren’t you setting up a strawman here? I don’t know of anyone who has been asserting that “because employees work for financially successful companies, they’re more engaged.” Even if the data show there’s no causal relationship the other way–who cares? I don’t think anyone has been asserting that.

    In the link you provide, you suggest this is equivalent to debunking the notion of putting numbers over people–that somehow you have shown that valuing people produces better numbers, whereas valuing numbers doesn’t do it for people. But I just don’t see your logic. I have never heard anyone claiming that working for a financially successful company makes people engaged; and even if they were, and it did, I don’t how it supports the conclusion you’re trying to draw?

    In your linked paper, you conclude, “It’s time to finally kick the “bottom-line first, people second” approach to the curb once and for all.” But it seems to me, you’re continuing to feed it. You are essentially saying, “focus on people’s engagement and you will cause the company to make more money.”

    How is that not just another example of what I wrote about: justifying engagement on the grounds of profitability; subordinating people to profit; justifying means (engagement) on the grounds of ends (financial performance).

    Please come back at me if I’ve got it wrong, but it looks to me like yet another case of “engagement is good because it causes profits.”

    I refer you back to the opening two questions: is the purpose of engagement to make companies profitable? Or is the purpose of profitable companies to help people be engaged?” It’s not a question of causation, but a question of purpose: which do we intend to be the higher good?

  12. John Gies
    John Gies says:

    This is an important question for our times. And one we need to answer. If I approach it logically, then we have to determine our first premise. Is that profit or engagement?

    If we say profit and then deploy engagement to reach profitability we are being congruent and logical. When the market changes we can shed those employees and cut the flex time etc., all in the name of profit, then employees and the market will recognize our duplicity. (Will that matter amongst all of the other information and noise we consume is another question.)

    If we say engagement is our first premise then profit and good will are often the secondary benefit…Win/Win/Win/ company/employees/stakeholders. We see examples of companies that work very hard to maintain these values even in hard times that in turn remain profitable (maybe not at huge multiples)and sustainable. Some examples here http://management.fortune.cnn.com/2011/03/30/can-compassionate-capitalists-really-win/

    There is a fierce tension in the world today between these two approaches. I know which one works for me.


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