“Employee engagement activities?”​ No Executive cares, sadly.

Employee engagement activities: how relevant are they and what does that even friggin’ mean? Let’s dive into this for a second but keep it somewhat short so that it’s consumable by a Temple of Busy-loving middle manager.

I think we need to understand two basic facts (issues?) about standard business to get at this idea of employee engagement activities:

  • The first is a misunderstanding of what profits are and represent. Peter Drucker, who is a guy many management types respect, said back in 1973 that the only value of a company is to create a customer (and then retain that customer). If you extend that logic, profits and share prices are the result of true organizational action. They are not the goal of organizational action. Many senior decision-makers miss this point entirely, and assume the goal of their job/company is to make profit. That’s what happens when you do the real goal, which is creating/retaining customers. It seems semantic, but it’s important.
  • The second is The Spreadsheet Mentality, which is a belief by executives that only what’s measured is what matters. This is a super-ironic position, because most executives couldn’t analyze data if their life depended on it, but it still resonates.

If you add “lack of clarity on what profits are” to “The Spreadsheet Mentality,” and then throw in “quarterly reporting systems for financials,” you pretty much just killed any employee engagement activities. And now we have a single quote to prove it!

Employee Engagement Activities: The Money Quote

Here’s a big article on Wharton’s website about the future of work and what to expect. Most of these articles are bullsh*t — there’s a fundamental flaw in many ‘future of work’ discussions — and this one has elements of BS, but is mostly interesting. Here’s a quote from a management professor at UPenn:

“If one wanted to look at single changes that matter a lot to work, the biggest in my view has been ideology, the shift from the idea that business had a responsibility to all stakeholders toward the idea that they have responsibility only to one – shareholders.”

Ding, ding, ding. Where’s the prize?

Employee Engagement Activities: Oh yea, employees matter?

Think about most places you’ve ever worked. What happens if there’s a customer issue? Executives yelp, bellow, screech, and pound their chests about what needs to be done. All-hands meetings are called. Everyone is brought to the same room. The problem is focused upon within literally days.

Now think about what happens when there’s an employee issue. Let’s say there’s a bad manager in the company. Everyone knows they’re bad. Their teams are never productive. The turnover rates are massive. The manager is costing the company tons, directly and indirectly, and barely hitting any ROI targets to negate the losses.

How quickly is that latter problem solved?

Answer: it can drag on for years. Even decades. Hell, even full careers.

Most companies are set up to deify process and product. People “matter,” but not as much as those two Ps. Some organizations, like Las Vegas casinos, are beginning to understand that you need to care more about employees. It’s a slow journey at most places, though — and having a waffle station or a 2pm out-time every other Friday isn’t the full picture.

Look at the quote above. At some point, business was about everyone. Bringing along employees, investors, executives, family members, etc. Over time, it’s become about one group: the stakeholders/investors. The employees don’t really matter to most leaders. They’re chasing the approval and appeal of their funders/backers. It’s essentially that simple.

Employee engagement activities can never get off the ground in that climate.

Employee Engagement Activities: So what do we do?

This one is simple to me, but tough in execution. You start with this one question:

  • Do we really care about employee engagement activities?

If the answer is “no,” then move on and focus on other things. Don’t even try to do employee engagement at all. Just never mention it. Because if you do it when your leaders don’t care about it, it will be done poorly and achieve very little. It’ll come off looking like a consultant-driven scam.

If the answer is “yes,” move on to this question:

  • Are we willing to cut the bullsh*t about employee engagement activities?

If the answer is “no,” that means your goal was to define a few core values, tack those up on the wall, and give employees $50 on their birthday. That’s not actually “employee engagement” at all. If that was your only plan, scrap it.

If the answer is “yes,” then you move to the next question:

  • How will we measure employee engagement activities and tie them to the bottom line?

See above about “The Spreadsheet Mentality.” This is the only way a decision-maker will care about employee engagement. Namely: talk to me about the money, and then tell me what rows of a document to look at. You can measure employee engagement, although admittedly it’s not the same way you measure tried-and-true financials. You can also link employee engagement to the bottom line, typically through turnover metrics. It’s all doable, though.

So that’s your three question flow-chart for employee engagement activities. If you hit “no” at any level, don’t even try to do it. Just design your culture around target-hitting and the opportunity for advancement as much as possible, or be willing to eat major turnover rates.

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