employee engagement

would you get inked for your company?

128px-NicksGunSo much of what is on the cutting edge of building employee engagement is really just applying well known customer service principles with employees instead of customers. Most of it is just about creating human connections and treating others at least as well as we’d want to be treated (wait, you say that’s not a new idea?).

There’s a next level though. A level of engagement where people are happy to accept less-than-the-best pay; where people would eagerly move across the country for the opportunity to be an employee; where it’s not unusual for employees to enthusiastically get tattoos of the company’s logo.

Think long and hard about that. What would it take for you to identify with your employer so strongly that you’d get inked? Heck, what would it take for you to proudly wear clothes with the company’s logo when you weren’t working (and still had clean laundry)? What are these companies doing that is so different?

I have some thoughts, but they come with the caveat that it’s just my thoughts and observations, not the results of a scientific study. I’d love to hear from people who actually work at a company that creates such an intense connection. [Two quick thoughts about the tattoos: 1) I’m just using them as a dramatic example, but there are other ways people demonstrate a strong personal connection with their employer; and 2) at least one company out there gives employees a raise if they get a logo tattoo – that’s not an example of love for the company, that’s a business transaction – and it doesn’t count.]

Creating Next Level Engagement

How could we attempt to create the kind of loyalty and love that has employees wearing their heart on their sleeve? What is so different?

Establishing Identity / Culture. These companies have a very strong identity that’s echoed throughout their culture. They don’t try to please everyone by offending no one. Rather they have a strong flavor that probably isn’t for everyone, but is loved by a few. Think “death by chocolate” ice cream to the typical corporate plain vanilla.

Valuing Individuality and Diversity. Employees are free(er) to express themselves through their clothes, appearance, desk decorations, etc. No one feels they have to conceal or downplay non-mainstream interests. No need to leave important parts of themselves at home or strap on the identity straightjacket when they come in to work.

Getting Selection Right. They use their strong identity as a first line of selection by turning off those who wouldn’t be a good fit and creating a strong attraction for those already in tune with the culture. Then they make hiring the right people a top priority instead of an afterthought and take a rigorous approach to selection.

Creating Internal Communities. Employees have fun together and intentionally build internal communities that create strong connections between employees based on common interests, company sports teams, charity work, fun runs, etc. They might also strongly encourage cross-departmental collaboration, both formal and informal such as mixed or open workspaces, eating lunch together, etc.

Encouraging Championing. This isn’t the right name, but I don’t know what else to call it. These companies want their employees on social media and vocal in the community. They are more concerned about people not sharing their passion for the company and its mission than they are about people saying the wrong thing. Yet, how many more typical companies actively smother any love their employees have for them by not trusting and discouraging/preventing people from speaking up, speaking out, and sharing their love?

Shedding Blood. People support those who support them, sacrifice for those who sacrifice for them, and shed blood for those who shed blood for them. Few things build loyalty faster than knowing the company is unquestioningly behind them when things get tough.

Celebrating the Love. These companies proudly show off their employee’s love. They have pictures of the tattoos, custom or homemade t-shirts, or whatever on the website and actively use that love to further build the brand identity and culture. Contrast that with companies that would cite the logo tattoo as being against dress code and a violation of the company’s trademark (“Did you get use of the logo approved by marketing and compliance?”)

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your ideas or examples of what these rare companies do that’s so special.

[Photo Credit: By THOR via Wikimedia Commons]

what if it’s not about employee engagement?

Work SucksEmployee engagement is a HUGE issue. But… maybe the problem is we’re focused on the wrong thing. Maybe disengagement is a symptom and we keep trying to fix people rather than addressing the underlying causes. Maybe it’s not as hard as we think. Maybe it’s not even really about engagement.

What if it’s about the employee experience?

Computer programmers place a big emphasis on creating a great user experience. They call it UX and know if the user experience is poor, people will stop being users and go find better software. Marketing and sales folks spend time fretting over the customer experience (aka CX). They know that customers will stop being customers if the experience is too difficult. UX and CX are huge issues and are given considerable attention.

Companies are slowly (oh, so slowly) catching on to the idea that they are competing for candidates. Talented candidates have options and if the application process is too painful, they’ll immediately go somewhere else. So, we’re hearing more and more about the candidate experience.

But we don’t hear much being said about the employee experience (call it EX). EX is made up of all the things that help or get in the way of employees getting their work done: management, their supervisor, rules and policies, work processes, work environment, culture, co-workers, etc. Does their daily work experience make them feel frustrated, angry, defeated, or hopeless? Or do they feel empowered, responsible, supported, and valued?

This is not just a human issue, not just an engagement issue, this is a business issue. Business gets done for, through, and by people and it’s been said that the customer experience never exceeds the employee experience. It’s a simple formula: CX<EX. How a company thinks about and treats its employees has a direct impact on how employees think about and treat customers which has a direct impact on how customers thing about and treat the company which has a direct impact on business results. In short:

Employee Experience >>> Customer Experience >>> Customer Behavior >>> $ (or not)

If you were going to improve the employee experience, what would you do? Here are a few ideas:

1. Start where you are with what you have (and stop digging). It’s easy to think of engagement as being too complicated or someone else’s problem. It’s easy to think it’s only for the VP of HR to worry about or that you can’t do anything because you’re not Zappos or Google. But the truth is, we can all make a difference in whatever organization we’re in.

Think about it this way: Are there things that you personally could do right-now-today that you know are 100% guaranteed to cause a terrible employee experience or spread disengagement throughout the company? (Yes!) If you have the power to have a negative impact, you also have the ability to have a positive impact. And if you know the things that make it worse the obvious strategy is: Don’t do that.

There’s an old saying: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. If you’re fighting against disengagement, creating an award winning workplace is a fantastic goal, but the first step is to simply stop doing things that create a terrible employee experience and cause disengagement. Don’t worry about making it better (yet), just quit making it worse.

2. Recruit and hire like it matters. If you want engaged employees – people who give a damn about results – start by hiring engaged people. Recruit, select, and hire people as though the future success of the company depends on it (hint: it does).

The software company Valve is a great example of an organization that truly understands the importance that hiring the right people has on business results. From their employee handbook: Hiring well is the most important thing in the universe. Nothing else comes close. It’s more important than breathing. So when you’re working on hiring… everything else you could be doing is stupid and should be ignored!

3. Invest time, money, and resources into developing people. This is kind of a big deal. People who care about their results tend to enjoy new challenges and hate stagnating. They want to learn, grow, develop and won’t stand for watching life pass them by or resigning themselves to a career where every day is the same. You hired great people, help them continue to be great. Oh, and the world is changing quickly. If your people aren’t developing new knowledge and skills every year, your company is sinking into the past.

4. Pay attention to culture. We’ve been told, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” and that sounds really impressive, but what is culture? The best definition is comes fromTerry Deal and Allan Kennedy: culture is the way things get done around here. Beliefs, policies, values, rules, unspoken norms, etc. all manifest in how things get done. So when it’s said that culture eats strategy, it doesn’t mean strategy is unimportant, it means that how you do things (the culture) must be in line with and support what you want to do (the strategy).

Likewise engagement efforts can be completely supported – or devoured – by culture. Do you have the culture you want? Does how you do things support people being fully engaged and at their best or does it shut people down?

5. Get rid of stupid policies. Speaking of how we do things around here… Stupid policies prevent people from doing good work, degrade the employee experience, and get in the way of results. They are generally the result of two situations: 1) someone did something dumb once and a policy was created rather than dealing with the situation and treating it like the anomaly it was; or 2) a policy was created to address a once valid situation that is no longer important, relevant, or valid.

Do something radical. Find out which policies are causing frustration and preventing people from getting their work done, then change or destroy those policies.

[Check out the book Kill the Company by Lisa Bodell for more thoughts on eliminating stupid policies.]

6. Provide employees with good managers. It’s said that people leave managers, not companies. Managers make or break the employee experience by making people feel supported and valued, bringing out their best and challenging them to be even better. Or NOT. Leading is a tough job most managers simply haven’t been prepared to do.

People usually get promoted into management because they’re good at the technical parts of their job and then are suddenly expected to be able to lead people. And it’s just not that easy. Leading is a distinct and completely separate skillset and like all skills it has to be fostered and developed.

If engagement and the employee experience is important and if managers can destroy them, then it makes sense to intentionally develop great managers and provide the support they need to make good decisions and do great work. Actually, if you did nothing else, having managers who don’t destroy engagement daily will provide tons of bang for the buck (bonus if they can actually build engagement).

7. Value people. This is at the heart of everything we’re discussing. This doesn’t mean everyone gets a trophy and it doesn’t mean coddling poor performance. And it REALLY doesn’t mean hollow, insincere lip service to “our employees are our greatest asset.” But it might mean believing and acting as though people matter. It might mean a bit of gratitude, a touch of understanding, a tiny amount of empathy, and the sense that the company cares about the individual. All employees will have joyous, painful, exhilarating, scary, and very human moments both at work and home. How the company, team, and leaders react tells people all they need to know about how they are valued. Few things will cause a person to disengage quicker than realizing no one cares.

So what’s it all mean?

Ultimately, improving engagement and the employee experience isn’t about improving a survey score, it’s not magic, it’s not a program, and it’s much bigger than HR. It’s about doing things that support your employees and managers at being their best and eliminating the things that cause them to stop caring.

Sounds easy. Sounds simple. Yet very, very few companies have it figured out.

[Photo credit: michelhrv via Compfight]

six myths of employee engagement

Slipshod assistance, foolish inattention, dowdy indifference, and half-hearted work seem the rule; and no man succeeds, unless by hook or crook or threat he forces or bribes other men to assist him.” ~ Elbert Hubbard, A Message to Garcia, 1899

Much gets said about employee engagement and little changes. Headlines shout that only 30% of employees are engaged and then try to connect that number to the economy, terrorism, climate change, Millennials, or whatever the fear of the moment is. Except that engagement, as measured by Gallup, has held very steady between 26% and 30% since they started measuring it in 2000 (Gallup). Lots of concern and money thrown at the issue and there’s very little change.

Maybe part of the problem is all the myth and hype that’s built up around it. As I look around, there are six prevalent engagement myths I routinely come across (though surely there are more).

Myth 1: Everyone knows the definition of engagement. There seem to be as many definitions as people discussing engagement and trying to find the best one is a challenge. For example, there is a 2006 SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) publication titled “Employee Engagement and Commitment” that includes an entire page of definitions from 10 different companies. Every vendor seems to use a different definition and the average person usually thinks of engagement as synonymous with happiness, fulfillment, or job satisfaction. Some definitions are very academic, but I like simple. For me, the most useful definitions focus on a person’s discretionary effort and my own personal definition of engagement is “giving a damn”. It lacks nuance and precision but it’s stone simple and immediately understandable.

Myth 2: Engagement is about making everyone happy. Although I’m all for everyone being happy, there seems to be – at best – a loose connection between engagement and happiness. I suspect engaged people tend to be happier on the whole because they feel like their efforts matter, but I’m very skeptical of the suggestion that happiness creates engagement. People who give a damn about doing their jobs well are often irritated with anything that prevents them from being at their best. They’re mad because they care and that’s very different than being happily indifferent.

Myth 3: Work ethic is dead (kids these days). There are a lot of fingers being pointed at the Millennial generation and a lot of talk about how different they are. It’s easy to talk about how things were when we were young and lament the death of the old fashioned work ethic. Consider the possibility that the “old fashioned” work ethic we romanticize and get all misty-eyed nostalgic over never existed. For a bit of perspective, read A Message to Garcia, written in 1899 to see what the author thought of the work ethic back then (spoiler: it was pretty bad). Or just think about it this way: if we have a five generation workforce and 70% of the workforce is disengaged and that holds steady over time since before Gen Y was a strong presence in the workforce, it can’t be about generation.

Myth 4: $$$ = Engagement. I hear managers complain that they can’t motivate or get their employees engaged because they don’t control wages. It does seem like increasing pay would increase engagement, but the research of Fredrick Herzberg and others suggests otherwise. Money creates lots of things but it doesn’t seem to cause people to give a damn over the long haul. Yes, being underpaid is demotivating and disengagning, but being overpaid doesn’t fuel superengagment.

Consider yourself as an example. I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this post you’re a pretty engaged person and you care about the results you’re creating in your life and at your job. Do you give your all right now? Do you do an honest day’s work? Are you consistently considered a high performer? (Yes!) If your company doubled your pay could you create double the results you do now? Would you do twice as honest of a day’s work? Would you give your all twice as much? No, it’s not possible.

Flip this around and think about that actively disengaged toxic co-worker dragging the team down (you know who I’m talking about). Would paying them more change their personality, work ethic, or the amount they cared about the results they are creating? Exactly. [NOTE: I’m not saying people shouldn’t be paid more, I’m saying that increasing wages above market rate won’t magically cure disengagement.]

Myth 5: Engagement is a survey, program, or initiative. Lots of times HR or management focuses on measuring engagement with surveys or doing a program to increase engagement. That’s fine as long as everyone remembers that engagement is NOT a number from a survey and doing a program doesn’t necessarily equal engaged employees.

Engagement isn’t posters, slogans, training, or perks.  All those things have their place but all the dry cleaning, free soda, and foosball tables in the world won’t make people care more about their jobs. And, hopefully it’s not a surprise, but different people are, well, different. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to engagement. Oh, and people sometimes put their happy face on when taking surveys and don’t respond with their true thoughts and feelings (shocker!).

MYTH 6: Engagement is only an HR issue. This ties back to the myth that engagement is a survey or program. Disengagement is branded a “people problem” and handed to HR as though engagement is a thing that is separate from the business.  Engagement is not something that can be delegated to a specific department. It’s not something we can purchase. Engagement is not separate from the business and it’s not separate from the people. Business gets done for, through, and by people so engagement is a BUSINESS issue through and through. People touch every aspect of business so people problems affect business results.

What if the whole idea of engagement is simply a well-meaning red herring? What if it’s not the real problem at all? What if it’s an indication of something bigger and we’ve been treating symptoms rather than the real issue?

Stay tuned for more on this. Next time we’ll look at some things we can do and something that might be more useful to focus on than engagement. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience in the comments.

[NOTE: this post is based on part of my presentation What if Employee Engagement Actually Mattered?]

high performance disengagement

I’ve been trying to go to the gym a bit more regularly lately, not that that’s unusual. Compare the number of gym memberships to the number of people who consistently go to the gym and it’s safe to assume that almost all of us are trying to go to the gym a bit more regularly lately.

That said, there are regulars – folks with impressive self-discipline and dedication who show up nearly every day. But, not all regulars are the same. The majority are focused and pushing themselves through workout after workout. Some are really fit and some are trying to get there, some are young, some old(er), some men, some women.

Look close, though, and there is a second group of regulars. I find this second group really interesting.

It’s always guys, mid to late 20s, who look superfit. Lean and muscular, you’d think they give their all every day. But… they don’t. They do a set of weights, then they get a drink at the fountain. They walk around. They chat with others. No sense of urgency, no sense of purpose, and no apparent plan. If they actually get a workout in it must take four times longer than necessary. Yet, even though they don’t appear to workout hard (if really at all) there are two crucial points to remember: 1) they are at the gym religiously; and 2) they are clearly very fit. What’s happening here?

My best guess is they played sports in high school and college, built up a fantastic physique with coaches and teammates pushing them forward, continue to eat pretty healthy, and with the metabolism of a 20-something are able to maintain their fitness without too much effort. Today, the gym is a part of their lives so they show up, but they’re really coasting on past effort and yesterday’s success.

Sound like anyone you know at work?

I’m really intrigued by the idea of high performers who become disengaged and are now just going through the motions. Chances are, they are still performing higher than average, just far below their potential and past performance. I guess what interests me is that most of the high performers I’ve known have moved on to other companies when disengagement started to set in. They were curious, focused, and had an enormous desire to do great work. If that wasn’t possible, if they felt hemmed in or started to get bored or became cynical about the company, they were gone. On to the next exciting opportunity.

So why would a disengaged high performer stick around? Why would they start pursuing mediocrity instead of excellence? Why would they stay in a position where they weren’t able (for whatever reason) to give their best instead of actively seeking a situation where they could? And if they have become ok with disengagement, why keep pretending to be committed instead of giving up entirely? Remember, we’re talking about high performers with established track records – they have options, they could change jobs – so they’re not just gutting it out because they have to.

I’ve lots of thoughts, but what thinks you?

Photo Credit: Patrick Feller via Compfight cc

disengaging the engaged

Last post, I talked about the difficulty of creating employee engagement for “zombies” – people disengaged from their own lives and just going through the motions. If it’s highly unlikely to engage them, where does that leave us? Are engagement efforts all for naught? Not a bit, but I suggest looking at our efforts differently.

If engaging the disengaged is a wasted effort, consider the possibility that our real engagement risks are disengaging the engaged. “Fink” commented on the previous post:

Sometimes “giving a hoot” also includes wanting to change a process or start a conversation to take away a pain point in the workplace. Those pain points push me towards the “zombie state.”

This is a committed, passionate person – fully engaged – sharing a warning and putting us on notice. They aren’t asking for more “employee engagement programs”, they’re telling us to stop making it so difficult to do great work. (If it sounds like I’m overstating or reading too much into a simple comment, I’m not. I know this person and can say that you would move heaven and earth to have them on your team. It pains me to think there are idiots leaders idiots blocking them from doing the great work they love to do.)

I’m not convinced we can engage the disengaged, but am confident that we can destroy the engagement of the people we need most.

What if the easiest way to harm engagement is to treat it as a separate program – a Human Resources initiative – instead of being every leader’s responsibility? It almost seems that treating it as a program makes it someone else’s problem and excuses poor leadership. I can almost hear it, “Of course my people are disengaged, HR needs to create better engagement programs.”

But engagement is never a separate event or program, it’s how we do daily business. Engagement is very difficult to create, yet so easy to tear down and destroy.

Your thoughts?

one reason your engagement efforts will fail (and no one is talking about it)

There is a BIG reason your employee engagement efforts might fail. It’s prevalent, it’s pervasive, and no one is talking about it. I can sum that reason up in one word. But, first a little back story…

Employee engagement is a huge topic right now. Lots of buzz, plenty of debate, data collecting, teeth gnashing, and program development in action. As with any hot issue, there are HR departments, survey firms, and consultants everywhere swinging into action as I type.

But what if it’s all for naught? Tim Sackett and Paul Hebert both recently offered some great counter-perspectives to employee engagement over on Fistful of Talent. Good stuff that’s worth a few minutes of your time. I’d like to offer up my own concerns about engagement.

To be clear: engaged employees are a great thing and all organizations should be striving to fill their payroll with engaged people. BUT: I do not define “engaged” as “happy”. I believe they are two separate things that happen to have correlation and overlap, but I’m skeptical about one causing the other. My working definition of “engagement” is “giving a damn”.

People who truly care about the results they are creating in their jobs aren’t always happy. They’re frequently frustrated, irritated, and torqued off at the people and processes and policies between them and the outcomes they are trying to create. Engaged people take ownership and responsibility and that doesn’t always bring sunshine and rainbows and unicorns.

So what’s the reason engagement efforts will fail?


Look around: it’s night of the living dead out there. The world is filled with zombies. Not the fever-infected, brain-eating kind, but the breathing-but-not-really-alive-stumblilng-through-today-without-a-purpose-just-to-make-it-to tomorrow kind.

Walk through the grocery store, stroll through the mall, look at people going through their day. There is  a frighteningly large and significant percentage of folks disengaged from their own lives. They are comfortable enough that they don’t have to worry about food or shelter, but with the basic needs met they don’t have any sense of higher meaning. There’s a pulse, but nothing in their lives to get the heart racing. We are in a golden age of enlightenment where the knowledge of all humanity is accessible instantly and for FREE and they shuffle about in their own self-imposed dark ages. Purpose is displaced by distraction.

If someone doesn’t care enough to show up for their own lives, how on earth will we get them to care about the work they are doing? If they have given up on themselves, how will they be an active part of our cause?

Zombies. The apocalypse is already here and it’s on our payroll.


feelings matter: how do you feel about HR?

Yesterday, I wrote: How the humans who are your (internal or external) customers FEEL about your products and services is much, much more important than what they THINK. [This is the single most important line I have written in this blog ever. Period. Think about it. Internalize it. Apply it to your job.]

I wrote it, but didn’t invent it. Much smarter folk than I have demonstrated this time and again, but it’s pretty easy to see in so many places. Advertisers provide just enough facts to let us think we’re being rational, but the images and ad copy focus on generating feelings. They scream: this product will make you feel sexy, young, in control, free, knowledgeable, successful, organized, powerful, fashionable, desirable, loved, safe, etc. etc. For a fun assignment, compare the feelings generated by car ads on ESPN or Spike with those on the Hallmark Channel.

Most recently, I saw this think vs feel distinction come up an Alexander Kjerulf’s “Creating Happiness at Work” presentation from Meaning 2012. It’s well worth watching and ties into employee engagement and the difference between how we feel about our jobs and how we think about our jobs.

All of this raises a great question: how do people feel about HR? When employees and managers think about their HR department, what is their gut level feeling? Anxiety? Dread? Or do they feel safe, secure, excited, supported? Is going to HR a dreadful walk to the principal’s office or an exciting visit to a place where stuff gets done and problems get solved? Sure, it depends on why you’re going to HR, so let me turn it around a little. When someone from HR is walking through the building do people’s stomachs tighten up or are they happy to see them?

How do people feel about the products and services your HR team provides? Resentful? Frustrated? Thankful? Confident? Uneasy? Awkward? Joyful? Empowered? Whether we pay attention to it or not, people have an emotional connection to their jobs, co-workers, boss, and even their HR department. That feeling might be negative, neutral, or positive.

Feelings matter. We don’t spend extra money, don’t create forums, and don’t promote products we feel negative or neutral about. When looking at customer satisfaction there is a huge gap between “it meets my needs” and “I’m so passionate about this product that I insist all my friends try it and spend my valuable spare time connecting with others who use this product”. That’s the gap between thinking and feeling.

So, back to HR. How do people feel about your HR department? What is their gut-level connection? If it was outsourced tomorrow, would employees even notice? Would they sing, “Ding dong, the witch is dead” and throw a massive celebration, or would they fight to keep it?

HR connects with it’s customers over money, family, security, future. All of those are powerful, powerful emotional trigger points. How can HR build stronger positive emotional connections to our customers? How can we not just meet the needs, but delight those we serve?

the good news about disengagement

“Stereotype fools, playing the game. Nothing unique, they all look the same. In this Sea of Mediocrity, I can be anything – anything I want to be.” ~ Arch Enemy

The Bad News:

People everywhere are disengaged from work. The statistics, if accurate, are horrifying. Within just the past year or two, Gallup indicated that 72% of US workers were not engaged in their work. This disengagement ranges from just going through the motions and getting through the day to actively undermining the efforts of co-workers and the company. Gallup also reports that the lost productivity from actively disengaged employees puts a $370,000,000,000 drag on the economy each year. Other research and news outlets consistently report similar findings.

That’s bad news for the economy, bad news for the average company, and not much fun for the majority of workers.

The Good News:

There is actually so good news that comes with so many people setting such a low bar for themselves and the world.

At the leadership / company level, there is a very effective and nearly uncopyable competitive advantage for those who can attract, develop, and retain people who care. [Here’s a little secret: people who care want to be around other people who care. Use this information to your advantage.]

At the individual level, the more others are disengaged, the easier it is for you to stand out as a superstar. Show up, smile, do a good job, do right by the customer and the company, and you’ll be looking good. Have some enthusiasm, give a damn, strive to go the extra mile, and you’ll be a full on rock star.