Why Employee Engagement is a Joke
Mark Babbitt joined Meghan M. Biro for the January 10, 2020 #WorkTrends podcast to talk about employee engagement. Meghan brought up the fact that only half of all employees feel like they have a career, and Mark concurred. We’ve turned engagement from a good idea into a joke, he noted, and pointed out that engagement levels are the same as they were in the 1980s: “If there’s eight million blog posts and hundreds of experts on this subject, why have we not fixed anything?”
Mark is a colleague of Meghan’s and a longtime friend of TalentCulture. He’s also the president of WorqIQ, a community and change management consultancy, and CEO and founder of YouTern, a career site for college students and young professionals. His upcoming book, due out later this year, is Good Comes First: How Companies Can Create an Uncompromising Company Culture in a Confrontational World. And he’s one of Inc.’s Top 100 Leadership Speakers. Which all means he’s been tracking the story of employee engagement for a long time.
“The data proves that it is a myth,” he said. “We have spent 30 plus years discussing this. Organizations and governments have spent billions of dollars on ’employee engagement’ and we have had zero impact. Every poll out there tells us that we haven’t moved the needle one bit. That employees are either disengaged or actively disengaged.” The two set out to uncover what might actually undo the impasse. What they struck on is changing the game entirely.
Random Acts of Leadership
The problem is that we can’t manipulate engagement, Mark said, “Engagement is a human process.” Meghan suggested a shift to thinking about experience — so long as it’s really about people. True, Mark noted: experience has to actually factor in the employee’s perspective. Without being able to determine and report their own experience and weigh in on the impact of leadership, organizational values, benefits and more, the employee has no voice – which means it’s not really a mutually beneficial relationship, it’s still unilateral management.
What would shift the balance include “Random Acts of Leadership,” as Mark put it — with leaders actually walking up to employees and asking the real questions, like “What are you working on today? How can I help? What resources can I push your direction? What are your obstacles to success?” Conversations like that move the needle far more than any tools, he said. So do leaders sitting down for a cup of coffee with people — being real, being human.
Even better than looking simply at improving employee experience is achieving workplace intelligence. Let’s just make sure it’s not just another buzzword, Meghan cautioned. Mark agreed, and explained that it’s a tangible stack of 5 workplace aspects:
- the most dominant leadership style that people deal with every day
- the organization’s culture and climate
- purpose-driven performance
- employee engagement/experience, but entirely redefined
- a sense of community
All go into the workplace we want to be in, Mark said. “When I go to work today I feel like this is where I belong.” When it was time for Mark to make his predictions on the future of work — a signature question on #WorkTrends — he got serious. He cited a new breed of leader, all jokes aside. More compassionate, less command-and-control; a new guard, as he explained. “Leaders will realize that employees recognize the need to take time for ourselves, our children, our fur children, our elderly parents… It’s going to be so retro that it will almost seem revolutionary.”
Listen to the full conversation. And don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss an episode.
[04:34} They didn’t have leaders that cared. They didn’t build mutually beneficial relationships with employees. They just started manipulating. They got this little software program that said, “Oh it’s Becky’s five year anniversary. Go say congratulations.”
Photo: Kobu Agency