The Four Myths of Employee Engagement

For at least a decade, the brightest minds in HR have been working on improving employee engagement. They listened to employee input, offered rewards and incentives, and provided professional development opportunities. They established flex time, open-door policies and free lunches on Friday. So why is employee engagement getting worse – not better?

I believe that our approach to employee engagement is backwards. And the root of the problem lies in our reasonable (but wrong) assumptions about human motivation and behavior.

At some point, we convinced ourselves that engagement was about perfecting the employee’s circumstances. Removing their hassles, obstacles and annoyances, we reasoned, would unleash unprecedented levels of productivity and performance. These unencumbered souls would be super versions of themselves: happier, stronger, better, and more engaged.

It’s a nice theory! But if this was how humans actually operated, every one of us would have a beautiful house and an obedient dog; wars would end around the world; and the economy would be more predictable than the sun rising in the east. So what’s wrong with it?

If we pick it apart, there are four myths underlying the conventional HR wisdom that just don’t hold water.

Myth #1: It is possible to make everyone happy.
Busted: It is impossible to please multiple people simultaneously. Our individual desires often put us at odds with each other, but that’s why we invented compromise.

Myth #2: It is possible make just one person happy.
Busted: Have you ever tried to make someone else happy? Doesn’t work. Happiness isn’t something you can do for people. They have to find it on their own.

Myth #3: It is possible to create an ideal working environment.
Busted: There is no such thing as a perfect working environment. By its nature, the world is chock full of big problems, small annoyances and everything in between. The best employees work with what they have.

Myth #4: An ideal working environment would bring out the best in our employees.
Busted: We may imagine that a stress-free, problem-free workplace allows us to do our best work, but in fact humans can reach their full potential only when confronted by challenges. In a perfect world, our unique talents are not needed, and our motivation dissolves.

Bottom line: You can’t manufacture employee engagement with gimmicks – at least not in a sustainable, long-term way. That’s because true happiness and engagement comes from a mindset of personal accountability. When an employee views the world through the lens of accountability, she recognizes her own power to affect her circumstances. She sees herself as an architect of her life, not a victim. And that mindset buffers her against all the frustrations of living in the real world, enabling her to strive for success despite the circumstances – and take responsibility when her efforts fall short.

Cy Wakeman offers a Reality-Based approach to navigating today’s workplace, defying conventional wisdom with bold tips for business leaders and employees on how to “ditch the drama, restore sanity to the workplace, and turn excuses into results.

Are you a Reality-Based Leader? Take this assessment to find out.

Try a different approach to employee engagement surveys.

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3 Comments

  • LibraryCat

    But--it IS possible to make everyone UNhappy, one person UNhappy, and create a terrible work environment. Those aren't gimmicks. That's the reality of many workplaces.

  • Michelle Pokorny

    Cy, while I agree there are a number misconceptions about 'employee engagement', taking a  'there's really nothing you can do' position doesn't work for me, nor does associating engagement so completely with accountability.  Perhaps taking accountability is an outcome of being engaged?   I agree, you can't 'manufacture' happiness or engagement in others, but we can know much more about human motivation, what it is that drives and inspires people generally, and what people value more individually.  Knowing this we can create work and engagement program experiences that help enable greater satisfaction, happiness and motivation.  Here's some insights you and readers might find interesting:   http://switchandshift.com/its-...  Thanks.

  • Kevin Nakao

    Great article around the expectations you should have on company culture.  One of the more helpful resources I have seen on understanding the key drivers of motivations is Dan Pink and the RSA animation of his TED talk.  A must see video for those interested in what really drives people and ultimately engagement: http://blog.meritshare.com/the...