The #1 Reason Employee Engagement Isn’t Happening at Your Company and Why No One Knows About It
Do you realize how frustrating it is to be colorblind?! Do you know how many times my family says to me, “Dad! Go put on a new shirt. You look like a clown.” It isn’t the clothes, it is how I wear them. In fact, it hurts other’s eyes just looking at me sometimes.
But as much as I try, I can’t tell the difference between colors! As we watched the 4th of July fireworks recently, I guessed at what colors they were (which, before I never realized there were colors involved). The kids laughed as I got them all wrong.
For example, I don’t see a difference between the two pictures above. Now, given that, try to match your clothes, or not burn meat on the BBQ, or try to even recognize that your child has a sunburn. It doesn’t work.
But what does this have to do with Employee Engagement?
Accountability & Responsibility
Schizophrenic & multi-personality
Green & Red & Orange & Brown (if you are colorblind)
These are terms we often confuse. We use one word when we really mean another. Most of the time it’s harmless.
But when we are talking about workplace satisfaction & engagement we need to be very careful to understand the difference. We must be able to tell the difference and see clearly. And I’d say we are unknowingly misled by some of the big players. (More on that later.)
Confusing these two terms can really frustrate the leaders of companies. They are going for increased engagement to slow the number of employees exiting the company, for example, but create incentives and programs that only create satisfaction.
The result? Retention doesn’t get better and they can’t figure out why. Then they get frustrated that their efforts aren’t working and they give up. Or worse, they say that all this “employee engagement stuff” is a gimmick.
I’ve seen this happen time and time again. But then they are forced into trying to do something — anything. So more of these programs are created — not really trying to improve employee engagement, but more as a checkbox to say, “Hey, we tried.” That’s when you know a group is defeated.
It’s like being colorblind. We don’t know what we are missing, except we know there is something else there. We think we are seeing our situation clearly, yet in reality it is quite incorrect. And then we give up and wear mismatched clothes.
The difference between Satisfaction and Engagement
To begin to understand the difference between these two terms we need to learn about the work of Fredric Herzberg. He created the two-factor theory (also known as the motivation-hygiene theory). In a simplified nutshell, part of the theory states that the opposite of sadness is not happiness, but rather no sadness. The opposite of dissatisfaction is not satisfaction, but rather no satisfaction. The opposite of disengagement is not engagement, but no engagement. It makes us aware of a third choice — a middle ground of neutrality we don’t usually recognize.
Apply this thinking to employee engagement programs within our companies and what do we get? A present day scenario we live over and over again:
They have a workforce which is disengaged. They try to engage them by putting in new programs. Unbeknownst to the leadership, these programs will only satisfy employees, not engage them, but they call them engagement programs because they confuse the terms and don’t know the difference. So when the results they are looking for (which are the results of engagement) don’t happen they think the program failed or the employees just aren’t appreciative enough of the leadership’s efforts.
In reality the program did exactly what it was designed to do: satisfy.
The Three States of an Employee
There are three employee states: Dissatisfaction, Satisfaction, and Engagement. (Another way to look at it is Disengaged, Not Engaged, and Engaged. But the nomenclature here is important — it will help us distinguish our actions and their effectiveness.) When the leadership of an organization sees a problem they are usually looking at dissatisfaction: disgruntled employees who don’t put in a hard day’s work or who just don’t live up to the potential (read performance) they have. They are apathetic, slothful or just plain ambivalent.
So what does the leadership say? “Let’s get our employees engaged!” Then they put in programs which will take them to the next stage: Satisfaction. These programs are recognition programs, extra time off, bonuses, employee of the month, a company newsletter, better communication, etc. These programs don’t engage them, but they do make it so they aren’t dissatisfied any more. At this point, satisfaction and engagement are confused.
Satisfaction is much like limbo-land. Employees aren’t happy, but they don’t hate work, either. It’s mediocrity at its finest. You can’t fire them, but they aren’t living up to their potential.
The third state, Engagement, happens only when the Satisfaction state is fulfilled. You can look at it much like the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You can’t go from Dissatisfied to Engagement without taking care of Satisfaction. Although the Satisfaction state doesn’t create engaged employees, you still need it as a base to create an engaged workforce.
Once that base is there you can start on things that truly engage employees. Things like trust, ensuring employees are working on something that challenges them and that they value, ability to fail without retribution, control over their work, and accomplishing hard things. These things engage employees.
Why aren’t we doing Engagement?
I recently had a director of a large, worldwide company call me. She mentioned that they are consistently rated one of the best places to work in the United States. But they are in a war for talent right now and they needed to be on top of their game. They have engagement programs in place and they are obviously doing something right.
“But when we heard your keynote about the 11 Secrets of Engaged Employees at the conference,” she told me, “My VP and I came to the same understanding: The programs we had in place weren’t helping employee engagement. They were nice and they were good, but if we wanted to do true engagement and win the war on talent, we had to focus on different characteristics.”
Why do we see so many programs focus on this lower level of employee intervention? The kind that only creates Satisfaction? It’s because of Parkinson’s Law of Triviality which states that, “…members of an organization give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.” In other words, we tend to focus on the things that are the easiest and put off dealing with the difficult, complicated issues. In fact, we often try to do the easy things, hoping it will take care of the more complex ones.
Think about it. How many times have you put on a movie for your small child who was acting poorly? Sure, it calmed her for the time being, but it didn’t take care of the issue. In fact, it probably made it worse!
(Click here for a graphic you can print to help explain this to others.)
True employee engagement is hard!
For example, how are you going to increase trust in your organization? A new company newsletter won’t cut it. It’s not something you can assign as a task. It is something that needs to be studied, measured, analyzed and creatively thought about by several people. It will take time and a great deal of effort.
When we go from the state of Dissatisfaction to Satisfaction, we are striving not to suck. It isn’t until we go from Satisfaction to Engagement that we are striving to be awesome.
Now, here is my claim — and please, prove me otherwise: the big boys are unknowingly misleading us.
For example, Gallup has arguably the largest, most oft quoted study on employee engagement. You know, the one that says that 70% of all US employees are disengaged? Their version of the three stages of employees is Actively Disengaged, Disengaged, and Engaged. Using these terms leads us to believe that if we can just move the employees out of the disengaged stage, they will be engaged. In actuality, no they won’t! They will not be disengaged, but they won’t be engaged, either.
Did you catch that?
Companies like this aren’t exactly measuring engagement.
In the “Gallup’s Q12”, they ask 12 questions. After looking at the list, five of them only measure satisfaction. (And there are others that don’t measure engagement, but I could understand why they are being asked.) I would contend that these particular questions reflect things that don’t lead to true engagement. Sure, some need to be there for engagement to happen (as part of the Satisfaction stage), but it is still only measuring Satisfaction.
(Giving Gallup their due credit, I can see how overall this measures engagement. But each question taken individually does not.)
My point is not to dig on Gallup, but rather to make sure we understand that having a best friend at work or receiving recognition or praise within the last seven days does not create engagement — it only creates satisfaction. And that if we stop there, we will have disengaged employees. Satisfied, but disengaged.
Measuring Employee Engagement
When I created viaPing it was important to me to distinguish between what measured employee engagement and what measured satisfaction. Why? Because I believe this is where most people get it wrong. And their misunderstanding causes millions of dollars (maybe even more?) each year to be wasted on programs that don’t deliver the desired results.
Recently I talked with an organization that was putting together an engagement strategy. I gave them a demo of viaPing and they were very excited about using it. Their plan was to have two groups: a control group and a test group. They were going to use their engagement strategies on the test group and see if their viaPing scores increased over the control group’s’ scores.
After talking to them about how they were going to use viaPing I asked, “What are your employee engagement strategies?” Then they told me: employee parties, a recognition program, and several general get-to-know-you activities, like bowling. If they were going for satisfaction, they may see that rise with the test group. But if they send out Pings that measure engagement, they are going to be sorely disappointed. Will they know the difference between the two? Will they be measuring the correct things?
I’d hate to have someone measure one thinking they were getting the other. It gives false data — a false hope — when the actual outcomes are very different. I have seen this totally confuse management teams. It ends with them shaking their heads in disbelief, giving up and moving on to the next thing on their already full plates.
The lessons to be learned
If you want engagement, do things that will engage the employees, not just satisfy them. If you want to measure engagement, make sure the criteria truly measure engagement. When you strive to be awesome and create engaged employees, don’t just try to avoid disengagement, but do the hard things that will create engagement.
(Learn about the “11 Secrets of Engaged Employees.” Get the video series delivered to you. And download the free bonus material for this post to help explain it to others.)