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.


Daniel Pink on Getting Employee Engagement All Wrong

There’s a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon between what science knows – the science around human motivation – and what business does, and the result is disastrous for the economy, for businesses, and for human beings. This, according to Daniel Pink in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

Motivation 2.0

The author calls the old business understanding of what drives us Motivation 2.0: without extrinsic motivators of rewards and punishments, people at work will be unmotivated, aimless and unproductive. Thus, the science of management: employees and teams need to be motivated and managed externally.

And Motivation 2.1 isn’t much better, despite talk around flexibility and empowerment.

“.. .consider the very notion of ‘empowerment.’ It presumes that the organization has the power and benevolently ladles some of it into the waiting bowls of grateful employees.”

Pink argues that not only does Motivation 2.0 not work in the new economy, it does great harm. Backed by rich research from various fields the author gives examples of how the misuse of extrinsic rewards, so common in business, impedes creativity, stifles personal satisfaction and turns play into work. After basic material needs are met, the quid pro quo of if/then rewards–if you do this, I’ll give you that–saps the juice from the job.

One of the most fascinating examples of this in the book is research done by Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School. Prof. Amabile and colleagues asked a number of artists to select twenty of their works, ten of which were non-commissioned and ten of which were commissioned. A panel of curators and art experts, knowing nothing of the nature of the research, was then asked to rate each work on creativity and technical skill. And – as you guessed – while the skill ratings were equal, the commissioned works consistently rated lower on creativity. The commission turned the artists’ play into work.


Motivation 3.0 stems from the understanding that we, as human beings, are intrinsically motivated to take on responsibility, to look for creative and intellectual challenges and to solve problems. We are self-directed and work best when we have three things:

– Autonomy: the ability to control aspects of our time, tasks, techniques, and teams

– The Opportunity for Mastery

– Purpose: a connection to something larger than ourselves

These are the factors which create real employee engagement.

Then why is it so hard for business to move to Motivation 3.0 – nourishing employees’ intrinsic motivations instead of “managing” employees through carrots and sticks? After all, the research, while growing, isn’t new. Some of these findings have been around since the 1940s.

I believe it’s a matter of trust – “managers” aren’t ready to trust their teams’ or employees’ intrinsic motivation to do good and creative work. If the motivation is extrinsic – rewards like money and promotions, or punishments like docked pay – they can control it. If the motivation is intrinsic, managers have to trust their employees. It’s that simple, if not that easy, and Drive speaks to the heart of these issues in a rich and readable way.

Why Nobody Cares About You, And You Should Be Glad They Don’t

Nobody cares about you. I don’t mean your parents, of course they do. And of course your dog. And your significant other, if you have one. Maybe even your kids or your siblings, though there’s no guarantee.   And maybe a great friend or two. 

No, I’m talking about all the rest. Your work team, your customers, your suppliers, your neighbors, your kids’ teachers, the gang at the gym and at church. The people you spend 85% of your time with, who make up 90% of the entries in your contacts database and 95% of the people in your LinkedIn catalog. 99% of your Facebook and Twitter friends. They don’t really care about you. None of them. Not really.

Basically, the vast majority of human interactions we have are with people who don’t really care about us.

And that, my ‘friends,’ is a wonderful thing. Here’s why.

My Life has Been Very Eventful: Some of It Actually Happened.

For me, almost all the stomach-churning fear and angst I have experienced in my life consisted of fictional plots hatched in the dark places in my own mind. They nearly always featured those 90%-plus people in my life. A huge chunk of my life’s emotional energy was spent on winning fictional arguments and fights with them—though now, finally, I spend a lot less time on that.

If only I could have realized more fully, earlier on in my life, the One Big Truth, how much more productive I could have been! And what is the One Big Truth?

They don’t really give a damn. Any more than I do about them. Oh sure I like interacting with them, most of them, most of the time. And I actually don’t think badly about hardly any of them—they mean well, mostly. It’s just that, I’ve got my own issues to worry about, and I honestly don’t spend that much time focusing on them.

And, surprise surprise, they spend about as much time focused on me as I do focused on them. Which is not a lot. And they probably don’t think any more badly about me than I think badly about them, which is not much. The main thing is: I just think about myself more than I do about them. And they do the same.

The Freedom That Lies in Realizing No One Really Cares

Again, I don’t mean we’re all selfish, mean-spirited people. But I do mean that we’re all pretty much wrapped up in ourselves. And that turns out to be an enormous, high-potential gift.

Because: imagine doubling the quality of attention you show to other people. Not even the quantity—just the quality.   No more time—just more connection.   What if you could really connect with your customer. Just for two minutes. For two minutes, to engage in a way that is not dominated by your desire to close the deal, to advance the sale, to get them to like you.

What if, for two minutes, you could actually care about them? About how they are feeling, about why they’re thinking what they’re thinking, about how it must feel to be them in that moment. 

What if you could offer the fine gift of your attention? 

What would happen if someone gave a damn about you for just two minutes? How would it feel? 

Pretty good, I think. And what does it cost? Pretty much nothing.

You Can Radically Improve Lives in Two Minutes a Day

Any time you want, you can stop the noise, get off the Bozo Bus, and reach out and touch someone. All it takes is the gift of your attention.

It seems to me that the reason we don’t give the gift of attention is that we are trapped in the fictional belief that we must gain the approval of others. Thus we are afraid of what they think of us.

The truth is: they can’t think good or ill of us if they’re not even thinking of us at all. Which means we are free—gloriously free—to share our attention. No one else is claiming it.

And if you give it away, you’ll get something back. It’s a universal truth.

Declare the obvious—your own freedom from the myth of others’ judgment. Then go use that freedom to fix your little corner of the world. You might even find that someone cares just a little bit about you.


Employee Engagement, Fog Sculpting, and Measuring Love

Do you believe the following statement?

High levels of employee engagement keenly correlate to individual, group and corporate performance in areas such as retention, turnover, productivity, customer service and loyalty.

It’s from Employee Engagement:What Exactly is It? by Patricia Soldati.

How about this following statement?

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of an engaged workforce on a company’s bottom line.

That one is Julie Gebauer (whom I know) of Towers Perrin at The Workforce Disengagement Problem.  

I believe both statements. I believe them a lot, in fact. (And not just because Julie Gebauer says so—though that helps!).

Trouble is—what do you do with it?

“Employee engagement” is one of those concepts that straddle a thin line: how to be complex enough to be true—and yet simple enough to be practical?

• Over-stress explanation, and you risk fog-sculpting—creating beautiful conceptual landscapes that are unactionable;
• Over-stress actionability, and you risk measuring love—mechanizing the things that make humanity human.

Similar issues arise with concepts like loyalty, employee satisfaction, organizational commitment, or identifying customer needs.

There are four risks here.

The first two risks are definitions, and identifying drivers. Soldati says:

In 2006, The Conference Board published "Employee Engagement, A Review of Current Research and Its Implications"…twelve major studies on employee engagement had been published over the prior four years by top research firms such as Gallup, Towers Perrin, Blessing White, the Corporate Leadership Council and others.  Each of the studies used different definitions and, collectively, came up with 26 key drivers of engagement.

Four of the studies agreed on eight of the 26 drivers.  All studies agreed that the strongest driver is the relationship with one’s manager.

Believe it?  I do.  No problem believing that one at all.  But it’s dangerously close to the fog-sculpting end of things, up there with good parenting, moral values and integrity.

The third risk is causality. For example: it is statistically proven that shorter people have lower IQ scores.

Don’t believe it? Compare 7-year olds’ test scores with 20-somethings’ performance on the same test.  See? Height is clearly correlated with IQ.

Correlation is not causality. David Hume (who outranks even Julie Gebauer), famously showed it’s impossible to prove causality.

The search for causality, in service to managerial actions and simplicity, forces us down the path of measuring love—which, like an emotional Heisenberg Principle, can destroy the thing being measured if overdone.

Which leads to the fourth risk—in today’s business environment, the biggest of all: measurement-driven behavioralism.

“Employee engagement” is the latest star in the umpteenth remake of a movie we’ve seen too often: define drivers, measure them, benchmark the measures, attach rewards, and link pay to performance against the metrics.

This leads managers to ask HR to causally link “engagement” to shareholder value, define indicators for the links, and provide incentive plans to drive the whole Rube Goldberg scheme.  By Tuesday, please.

I suspect the HR community is even more at fault for encouraging this kind of thinking.

Of the two sins, I’d rather be subjected to fog-sculpting. At least it fires the imagination.

By contrast, measuring love is inherently dehumanizing.

Turning “engagement” into an engineering exercise is—I believe—a great recipe for disengagement.

Scott Flander takes a good look at all this in “Terms of Engagement” in Human Resource Executive Online.  He quotes Ian Ziskin, chief HR officer at Northrup Grumman:

I’ve found over time that the single biggest thing to focus on is not the actual scores or the response rates — that’s a means to an end. The end is, do you really understand what the issues are in your business, and what are the actions you’re taking to improve them?

I don’t know Ziskin, but he sounds a thoughtful exec; he knows how to sculpt fog, and how to measure love.  And he artfully chooses a Middle Way.