E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

July 25, 2012

Liberate Your Company Through Employee Engagement

Gran Canaria - Mount Teide & Roque Bentayga in the SpringIf there is one topic out there in the field of Social Business that has been bugging me for a long while, as perhaps one of my strongest pet peeves ever, way even before we first started using the concepts of Social Business and Enterprise 2.0, that would be the one on Employee Engagement. More than anything else, because all along I have always felt that employee engagement is a myth. A huge one, actually! It’s a one way lane that has been imposed over us by the business world as perhaps the Holy Grail  of social networking. Essentially, the main reason why the corporate world is looking into social networks as the next big thing, because there seems to be this notion that social networking empowers knowledge workers to be more engaged, therefore happier, more motivated and committed, resulting in happy employees delighting happy customers. How wrong!! My goodness! Why have we let employee engagement take over the entire conversation in the Social space, when it doesn’t even exist in the first place?!?

Yes, indeed, you are reading it right. Employee Engagement, as we know it, does not exist. It never has. It never will (Well, maybe … Read further on to see what I mean with maybe…). But the most worrying thing is that it will never become a reality unless we shift gears with regards to our mindsets in jumping forward on to what it would really mean nonetheless: a dual-lane highway of engagement between knowledge workers and their employers. And, for certain, we are not there yet, not even close! And here is why … 

Like I have just mentioned above, there has been some extensive and rather comprehensive coverage around the topic of Employee Engagement all over the place that I have been lucky enough to follow up over the course of time and build a pretty good research index of good quality reading materials that would keep you all busy going through for a while. You would have to excuse me this time around for including all of these various links to those articles, blog posts, reflections, analysis, dissertations and whatever else on the topic on this blog entry, but, like I said, it’s been one of my pet peeves for a good few years and if you go through all of those research articles you would probably be capable of venturing why I’m stating out loud that fact that Employee Engagement does not exist. I am including them all over here, so that it would give me a chance, over time, to cover some of the various different articles more in depth. A little bit like my own personal knowledges sharing system on engagement. So, no, don’t worry, this is not that odd article where I’m going to bash against Social Business, or Enterprise 2.0 or Engagement for that matter. I’m seeing it more as a touch with reality, i.e. a touch with what is really happening out there, in the hope that we would have a good chance to revert the tide and get things back on track on what Employee Engagement should be all about, and towards the end of this article I’ll be hinting what’s the ultimate goal of that so-called concept of (employee) engagement. 

But before we do that, let’s go and cover some of the ugly bits. Let’s talk about how an employee’s work life can be utterly destroyed in no time or find out further what are some of the main reasons as to why knowledge workers keep quitting their jobs, even in today’s tough environment where we are facing an unprecedented econoclypse and where you would expect that those knowledge workers would stick around with their jobs, because they would need to. The reality is that they aren’t. It gets even uglier when you get to read stunning blog posts like this recent one from Matt Monge under the rather provocative heading of “Stop the madness” where you will be able to find golden gems like this one: 

“[…] Unless you’re ready to commit to the sort of change your employees are clamoring and longing for, just stop. If you’re not really, truly prepared to invest the emotional and mental energy into cultivating an engaged workplace, then don’t even pay it lip service […]

See? That’s one of the many many reasons why Employee Engagement does not exist. Mainly, because knowledge workers would eventually give out their emotional and mental energy to re-engage themselves into the workplace, if given the chance to so, but when the second half of the equation needs to kick in, that is, when employers need to do their fair bit of walking through that dual-lane highway to meet those employees there is a huge lack of emotional and mental energy from their side that comes up with a rather insurmountable drawback: cynicism from knowledge workers. And before you realise it you end up having one of the largest issues we keep facing today in the corporate world: disengaged employees, utterly demotivated, rather cynical and skeptical AND fully loaded with a voice using all of these social networking tools to keep up with the dialogue that employers never cared to listen to in the first place. And then it still surprises folks when business keep blocking the use of these social networking tools…

And what you eventually thought would help you address some business problems all of sudden it’s turned out to be *the* biggest problem you ever thought you would never be facing again: talent wars. Talent wars, here they come! Here you have them snapping away your best talent into those other businesses that have shown how caring, nurturing and cultivating an engaged workforce is one of the key essential traits to become a successful social business. WOW!! Can you see the spiral effect, downhill, from employee engagement done wrong? Well, it’s happening. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow! And this is exactly what I mean with all of us needing to make a quantum leap within our mindsets and start shifting gears towards embracing a change that we would no longer be able to stop: if you do care for your employees, if you would want to empower and treasure happy workers, you would need to earn that merit, their merit, and work your way through it just as much as they do for you.

If not, be ready to face little facts like that one that claims that only 29% of employees are truly engaged (Yes, not even 30% of your employee workforce is engaged, right now!, at work for what they do today!). Under the title “The Facts on EngagementMark Toth highlights beautifully the 6 E’s of Engagement: Envision, Empathise, Enhance, Empower, Evaluate and Encourage as perhaps that magic formula that you could make it work to revert the change, and I am thinking that we would probably be much better off as well if we would start addressing, AND fixing!!, some of the various different reasons why Mark himself mentioned employees are ready to quit their jobs, and see whether those 6 E’s would eventually be able to make the cut. To name those reasons briefly: 

  1. “Limited career opportunities
  2. Lack of respect
  3. Money
  4. Lack of interesting / challenging job duties
  5. Lack of leadership
  6. Bad work hours
  7. Unavoidable reasons
  8. Bad employee relations
  9. Favouritism
  10. Lack of recognition”

I bet you would be thinking by now that those 6 E’s would probably be able to address the vast majority of those reasons, although I am finding it incredibly fascinating how both intrinsic AND extrinsic motivators come up really high on that list altogether. I mean, who would have thought that limited career opportunities, lack of respect, and money would be ranking amongst the first, don’t you think? I know what you are now thinking though, yes, but extrinsic motivators, as Dan Pink described beautifully on “The surprising science of motivation” no longer make the cut with regards to keeping your employees engaged. You would need to focus on intrinsic movitators as well. Hummm, it looks like that’s no longer the case, if Money comes up 3rd as the main reason why employees quit their jobs today, don’t you think? Plenty of food for thought on that one in today’s financial turmoil that surely is helping everyone focus more on Maslow’s Hiearchy of Needs, specially, the primary ones, than anything else. And understandably. Very much so.

So, we are back at square one, that is, employee engagement, or the lack of, seeing how employers keep failing to deliver on that emotional and mental energy, probably because at this stage most of them are thinking that employees are just happy to have a job, giving today’s circumstances. Well, how wrong again! Remember, talent wars? They are coming, and fast! In fact, it’s going to be one of the biggest issues we are going to face in the business world in the next 20 years where, according to some statistics, only in the US, every second there would be a single knowledge worker turning 60. Every single second for the next 19 years! Imagine for other older countries what that ratio would be like. Where is all of that knowledge and expertise going to go if you are not capable of retaining your younger talent as your mature knowledge workers start retiring in the next couple of years? See? This is the main reason and biggest issue why most companies are talking about employee engagement as a way to retain their talent, but why they also keep failing to deliver, because they aren’t capable of coming through to meet the needs of that social contract. 

We are starting to witness though how a good number of companies are offering various different perks that fall outside of the usual kinds of benefits you would expect, and I am certain we are going to continue seeing plenty of those in the rise as a growing trend, if they would want to keep attracting younger talent to be that new blood for that existing business; the challenge still remains though on how to sustain that engaged employee over the course of the years without being forced to seeing them let go, because you could no longer commit further to them. Right now, there isn’t a single indication out there for how businesses would be able to keep up with it in the long run… Till you meet up Issac Getz, who, just recently, gave one of the most inspiring, thought-provoking and mind-boggling TEDxTalks that I can remember at TEDxESCP under the incredibly refreshing title of “Liberate your company!“. 

The presentation lasts for a little bit over 14 minutes and, I tell you, it’s worth while every single second of it. It’s short, sharp, witty, humorous, insightful, unprecedented and a completely new and refreshing manner of looking into how employee engagement could be made a reality. Yes, that good! Here is the embedded code you can watch it right away: 


In that short speech, Isaac comes up to state the purest definition of what I would consider a true knowledge (Web) worker nowadays: every employee [who] is free and responsible to take any actions he / she decides are the best for the company. WOW!! Can you imagine that? That’s probably the final frontier for employee engagement right there: total freedom for the knowledge workforce to act accordingly for what would be of mutual benefit for the company AND for the employee him/herself. It just cannot get better than that, I am sure.

Well, it does … because further on into his presentation Isaac gets to introduce the topic of how you eventually get to build such companies where that freedom rules over everything else. He builds up further into it by talking first about the % of engaged employees in those organizations that he researched over the course of 5 years and to him that number is a whooping 27% (He calls them the roosters!). Then there would be an alarming 59% of *not* engaged employees (What he calls tired dogs) to then develop even further into a more alarming % of the knowledge workforce: 14% of *actively* disengaged employees (He calls this bunch the foxes). But things were never like that from the beginning, so what happened? Where did things go wrong for that 73% of disengaged employees to take over the corporate world? And most importantly, what can we do to liberate every company from them? 

That’s essentially what Isaac gets to develop towards the second part of the presentation; to him, it’s all down to liberating your company in three easy steps: 

  • Intrinsic Equality: take the initiative, because you are competent and trustworthy enough to get the job done effectively.
  • Personal Growth: build an environment where knowledge workers can learn to become better at what they do.
  • Self-direction: build an environment for it where you trust your employees to do what they know best. Excel.

Now, I am not going to spoil all the fun from his pitch while he gets to describe each and everyone of those simple steps towards liberating your company, instead, I would strongly encourage you all to have a look for yourself into the video clip, sit back, relax, and prepare yourself to be WOWed big time. Because I am sure you will!

At this point in time, you would probably agree with me that we still have got a lot of ground to cover to realise that golden dream of Employee Engagement. At this point in time, you would probably also consider that employee engagement still is a myth, even today, and that we would have to do plenty of really hard work, from both sides, employees and employers alike!, to turn the tide upside down and start moving things forward slowly, but steadily. The good thing is that we are not starting from scratch. We already have got some great examples from businesses out there that are truly pointing us all in the right direction towards realising that dream of keeping their employees engaged, motivated, focused, recognised and appreciated, amongst several other things. And right now, at this very moment, one of my all time favourite leading examples is that one from Lenovo, that earlier on in the week were in the news, although not as big  as I thought they would!!, when they finally got rid of one of the biggest, most negative, demeaning and demotivating influences of ill gamification in today’s corporate world: bonuses for executives.

That’s right, earlier on this week, Lenovo announced how the company’s CEO, Yang Yuanqing, spread the wealth of his $3 million bonus to 10,000 lower level employees as a token of gratitude for their hard work and engagement shown so far this year. Goodness! Talking about intrinsic (AND extrinsic!) equality, personal growth and self-direction! It probably cannot get better than that as far as employee engagement is concerned and as far as I know that would be, to me, the new standard under which I would consider true employee engagement for any business. Anything else would be, most probably, a waste of time, resources and energy, like it’s been over the last few decades, if you come to think and ponder about today’s % of disengaged knowledge workers in the current market. 

I wonder which other companies would be going up next, showing us, and demonstrating it at the same time, what employee engagement is all about and how we need to move away from engaging employees to engaging networks and communities alike, so that instead of fighting against one another, like it is happening today, we eventually grow up into helping each other at becoming better at what we already do. From the individual to the collective, from hoarding and protecting your knowledge and position to caring, sharing, and demonstrating empathy and respect for those who have been working really hard on liberating whichever company through their own engaged employees.

That’s the new standard for employee engagement. The fight worth while battling for. The one and only worth it. Forget about the rest. 

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