Ten Dangerous Myths About Employee Engagement

Rodd Wagner By Rodd Wagner

Editor’s Note: Our friend Rodd Wagner is one of the sharpest minds in our industry. So we were delighted when he offered to write a guest post on a subject that’s been bothering both him and us – the many dangerous myths about employee engagement that too many employers believe. Rodd makes some great points. Enjoy – then, if you’d like to talk further about employee engagement, reach out.

Employee engagement programs have been a fixture in large corporations for two decades. In that time, a lot has been discovered about the unwritten contract between people and their leaders. A lot of myths have also crept in – myths that threaten the effectiveness of engagement programs.

When executives misunderstand the true state of engagement or when they adopt counter-productive strategies, both their organizations and their employees suffer. Below are 10 of the most troublesome myths about engagement and the correct information every leader should know.

1. Employees are a company’s “greatest assets.” This line is meant as a compliment, and in that sense, it’s good. But assets are property owned by the company to be used as the firm sees fit. Buildings are assets. Products on the shelves are assets. Livestock is an asset. People are not. Categorizing them as assets is one of the ways that companies fail to fully appreciate the unique relationship they have with employees.

2. Only a minority of employees are “engaged.” Many consultancies categorize only about one-third of employees as “engaged.” The rest, they say, are lukewarm about their jobs or hate them and are working against the interests of their employers. BI Worldwide research finds that 55 percent of employees either agree or strongly agree they are happy with their current jobs. There is also little evidence that “disengaged” employees work against their employers’ interests; instead, they channel their energy toward finding work elsewhere.

3. Managers are the most important players in creating engagement. Managers are, indeed, in pivotal positions. They are the only ones with the time (and responsibility) to get to know an individual well and with the authority to marshal the company’s resources on that person’s behalf. However, they cannot compensate for a lack of vision or transparency at the top, for a poor compensation program, for a bad operations strategy that saddles employees with extra work, or for numerous other aspects largely in the control of senior executives. That old bromide about people joining companies and leaving managers is often wrong.

4. Leaders should give their employees a greater sense of meaning in their work. While it’s important for executives to help employees understand how their work connects to the larger company mission, they do not need to give them a sense of meaning. People naturally see meaning in their work. What’s more important is for leaders to ensure they don’t overuse meaning or do something that would detract from the sense of purpose people get from their jobs.

5. Managers should be incentivized to maintain high engagement scores. It seems logical that if employee engagement is important, if higher engagement creates stronger company performance, managers should have a financial stake in seeing the scores high. There are few worse ideas. Tacking a bonus onto engagement scores invites gaming of the system. It puts too large a cost on low scores. It makes telling the truth dangerous. Employees quickly catch on that things will go much better for them if they just tell the company what it wants to hear. Before long, the money spent on the survey is wasted, the reports give a false sense of security that everything is fine, and the company is paying out money for bonuses based on a contaminated survey.

6. It’s helpful to ask employees about “a best friend at work.” Friendships at work are correlated with higher levels of performance, but asking about them raises two issues. First, the question is intrusive: it touches on an area that is not really the company’s business (never mind that it discriminates against introverts and those who make connections slower than others). Second, the correlation to performance is inferior to the correlations between teamwork or collaboration and performance. It’s far better to ask about those – which are legitimate inquiries for an employer – than to ask about purely personal connections.

7. Unhappy employees give bad customer service. A lot of people make a hobby out of demonizing “disengaged” employees, saying they will tear up the hard work other, more engaged workers are doing. There’s little evidence for this. Most unhappy employees have enough personal integrity and concern for their customers that they will still give solid customer service. They’re eager to find a different job, but they don’t tear up the customer experience on their way out.

8. A little fear can be motivating. Fear is hugely distracting. It hijacks the brain. Fear makes it almost impossible for an employee to make the connections needed for a new breakthrough. More important, fear makes people want to flee. The research indicates that fearful employees are committed to working hard – as they simultaneously work on getting themselves somewhere else.

9. Almost everyone tells the truth on employee surveys. BI Worldwide’s research found that roughly a third of employees today either decide not to participate in their companies’ surveys or, if they do, give false answers. The majority of the false answers are more positive than the employee really feels – telling their employer “what they want to hear” to avoid the hassle or repercussions of telling the truth.

10. Organizations should find a way to get rid of “disengaged” employees. One of the major reasons such a large proportion of employees no longer tell the truth on surveys is that consultancies and employers target those who give low scores for termination. In their view, demoralized workers are “a cancer” or “vampires” who need to be purged rather than a symptom of poor leadership or managing that will simply reoccur with different people if the core issues are not resolved.

The good news underlying all these myths is that most employees like (if not love) their jobs. Most are quite responsible and quite receptive to their leaders earnestly trying to make their experiences at work better. Most are eager to do a good job and simply need their leaders to look out for them as much as those leaders expect them to look out for the company. Most employees will work hard for a company that treats them not as widgets, but as if they were real people.

Rodd Wagner

By Rodd Wagner, Vice President, Employee Engagement Strategy, BI Worldwide

Rodd Wagner is a columnist for Forbes and the New York Times bestselling author of Widgets: The 12 New Rules for Managing Your Employees As If They Were Real People. He will be speaking at the 8th Annual Maryland Workplace Health & Wellness Symposium on June 2. Opinions expressed here are his own.