Okay. What Do You Think Is Wrong with Employee Engagement?

When I first met my wife, Irene, it was love at first sight.

Shortly thereafter, I proposed to her in a written letter and we were soon engaged with a ring to be married. This was my pledge to marry her and by her saying “yes” back to me, her agreement to go along with this.

I am pleased to say we have been “happily” married for over 42 years. You see happily placed in quotation marks simply because marriage is hard work. As a typical male, I know I have not always been the easiest person to live with. Both of us have learned to give and take in all aspects of our lives. I also think that in growing in love together, we have each discovered more about ourselves along the way.

With getting married, the term engagement is mostly a short-lived timeframe and is really just a pre-cursor to marriage itself, which is hoped to be a forever experience. 

But maybe as we look at employee engagement, we should take a second look at how well we are engaging people.

Reality Check on How Engaged We Are 

Now, let’s move away from relationship engagement associated with marriage and set our focus on employee engagement, which somehow has the “happily ever after” wanting to be associated with it. Perhaps we have focused too much on getting employees engaged versus working together for the long term of developing a loving and caring relationship. 

Consider the current picture of employee engagement. According to Gallup, in 2021, 36 percent of U.S. employees are engaged in their work and workplace — which matches Gallup’s composite percentage of engaged employees in 2020. Globally, 20 percent of employees are engaged at work.

The percentage of actively disengaged employees is up slightly in the U.S., from 14 percent in 2020 to 15% percent through June 2021. Actively disengaged employees report miserable work experiences and say that they are poorly managed.

The ratio of engaged to actively disengaged workers in the U.S. is 2.4-to-1, down slightly from 2020 when the ratio was 2.6-to-1.

In our marriage comparison, about 40 to 50 percent of married couples in the United States divorce. The opposite of this means 50 to 60 percent of couples stay married. So far, marriage is doing a much better job than our companies, even though we spend more time at work than we do at home.

Employee Engagement: Is It A Two-Way Street?

Karsten Bundgaard, co-founder of the Danish firm Motivation Factor, conducted a study with IDG Research using traditional employee satisfaction survey along with their Motivation Factor® Index. The Motivation Factor® Index assesses Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation and your Motivation Capability, or your ability to identify what gives and what takes away your motivation.

Their research showed that 55 percent of the overall engagement of employees comes from, or is influenced by, external motivators. And they found that 45 percent of engagement comes from or is influenced by internal motivation factors and motivation capability.

Bundgaard suggests most company driven employee engagement initiatives have only been addressing slightly more than half of the engagement equation. The balance is fully in the hands of the employee, which rarely gets addressed or assisted.

My colleague and friend, David Zinger, well-known expert on burnout and employee engagement, makes a valid point when he says “expecting the organizations we work with to engage us is to transform ourselves into the victim role. It also creates the view that organizations are paternalistic in nature and essentially control us.” 

Zinger highlights the fact that people are finally waking up to personal responsibility for engagement paired with organizational accountability for what they should be doing. 

Taking Responsibility for the Workplace Relationship 

Harriet Lerner, PhD, the celebrated author of the books The Dance of Anger and Marriage Rules, outlines ways to improve your marriage by starting with you and your own behavior. She believes waiting for your spouse to change first is a recipe for unhappiness and divorce.

Sometimes, as employees, we are waiting for our immediate supervisor or manager to change their behaviors first. We even expect the C-suite or the corporation as an entity to make a rapid turnaround, or else! How many of us have left an organization or a department when we haven’t fully resolved the situation that motivated us to leave. We blamed rather than took responsibility for the situation—not minimizing where the cause may have originated.

As in marriage, so in the workplace. Both parties in the equation, whether a loving couple or an employer and an employee, must look beyond the courtship stage of trying to woo or win the other over. The workplace engagement that everyone is trying to increase the score and outcomes for is really about the emotional relationship and sense of appreciation in working together. It is all about the marriage and no longer an engagement! 

To Love and to Cherish

Harville Hendrix, PhD, a marital therapist who Dawn Raffel interviewed, for an Oprah Magazine article a few years ago said, “Real love is a verb. It’s a behavior in which the welfare of another person is the primary intention and goal.” 

We might redefine employee engagement in this marital analogy to being where both the employer and the employee are looking at the welfare of each party, as their priority and primary goal.

Hendrix also said, “Love as a verb isn’t dependent on how you feel or even what you think. Instead, you make an unconditional commitment to the other person.” 

There is so much emphasis made about the metrics of how engaged employees “feel” without a true sign of the unconditional commitment by each party. We should also collect data on “employer” engagement and their commitment towards their employees. That would make for a very interesting correlational study.

Personally, I like Zinger’s idea for the need for an “engagement revolution”. He is not advocating a corporate takeover or that employees storm the C-suite in an attempted coup. Comparatively, he is suggesting that to make things happen well, then work needs to revolve around engagement, rather than engagement revolving around work.

Similarly, like love in any good marriage or partnership, love and commitment must come first. It is only after this happens that when the good times and bad times occur; they are experienced as being part of the journey of being and living together.

Let’s all rally for more positive workplace commitments and relationships between employers and employees, as we refine the enigma that employee engagement has become. 

Recognition Reflection: How well engaged is your organization in providing unconditional commitments to employees?

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