Employee Engagement: Are You Still Partying Like It’s 1999?

Remember 1999, the last year of the old millennium? We were paying $1.20 for a gallon of gas and worrying about the Y2K computer bug.  Ah, the good old days. A lot of us were reading a revolutionary book called First, Break All the Rules. Published by the Gallup Organization, the book became legendary in the talent management field by introducing the concept of “employee engagement.”


Until then, most businesses focused on employee satisfaction as the marker of success, trying to measure this ephemeral quality in lengthy annual surveys. A turning point came earlier in the decade when Gallup interviewed leaders on the effect these surveys were having and a majority said their companies were worse off for having done them. That moment of truth led Gallup to undertake a massive research study to determine exactly how successful managers turn talented people into high performers.


The book served to transition businesses from pursuing employee satisfaction in favor of an employee engagement philosophy, described as a bottom-up process in which accountability and responsibility is placed on individual front-line managers to nurture and motivate their own groups of employees.


There was a core truth to Gallup’s insights and the book hit like a lightning bolt – selling more than 1 million copies and staying on the bestseller list for 93 weeks. It inspired a generation of managers and human resources professionals to rethink their performance development methods. Demonstrating that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – and the most expedient pathway to sales – Gallup’s approach was quickly copycatted throughout the industry.


In the industry’s view, each manager and each team is unique. You need to measure what is meaningful to that team and provide managers with feedback on those core dimensions. Issues that bubble to the top should be addressed locally.  By repeating that process one manager at a time, across thousands of managers, you increase engagement and build to better performance by cascading upwards through the organization, one team at a time, one department at a time, one division at a time, one region at a time.


This approach has a fundamental flaw, however. It tends to lose effectiveness after three or four cycles when the low-hanging employee issues available to front-line managers have been picked clean. Truth is, there are many barriers to employee engagement that a manager cannot solve and shouldn’t be held accountable to solve. These issues are more structural or strategic in nature – such as compensation and benefits, developmental programs and mission, vision and values — and are clearly the responsibility of company leaders.


The limitations of the approach are obvious. Every HR person can show you the bell curve of employee engagement with its characteristic tail-off. Every consultancy group is familiar with the revolving door of being ushered in with high expectations and then out as progress falls off in year three.


The fact is, organizations are not achieving all of the business outcomes that they could because they are still operating on employee engagement principles and approaches that were developed almost 15 years ago. Yet the industry has remained stubbornly stuck in this suboptimal pattern, failing to evolve into a more nuanced approach.


It’s time for a change. We need an employee engagement philosophy and structure that is more holistic. One that not only provides relevant feedback to managers with near real-time speed but also funnels key high-level metrics to senior leaders along with strategic recommendations on what they can and should do to assure maximum engagement.


Look – we’ve all moved on from 1999.  We’ve relegated the bomber jackets and bowling shirts to the back of the closet, haven’t we?  (I hope.) Let’s take a giant step forward in this critically important area as well. And let me hear your thoughts about what’s happening in your company. How have you moved on since 1999?


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