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“Are We There Yet?” A Guest Post on Employee Engagement by Bret Simmons

December 13, 2010

One of my favorite leadership blogs is that of eponymous Bret Simmons. Bret’s insightful perspectives on leadership issues, based on his experiences, teaching and consulting, bring a lot to the subject, and in particular the virtual conversations going on in cyberspace. One of his recent posts really resonated for me, and I’m sure you’ll find his observations and questions penetrating.

The topic?

Employee engagement, one that has garnered increasing attention in the past few years, to the point where some organizational job titles now reflect this subject.

As I noted in my own comment on Bret’s blog when this post appeared on December 2, he had pointed to the elephant in the room: people accept the espoused theory from management that employee engagement is alive and well. But don’t listen to my comment. For an insightful commentary on employee engagement, read Bret’s guest post below.

Are we there yet?”
If you have kids and have ever taken them anywhere in a car, no doubt you’ve heard this before. I promise you, if work for an organization that is on an employee engagement program turnpike, your employees are thinking something very similar. They all know it, but you probably do not.

If I read another blog post with an 8 step formula on how to engage employees at work, I think I will puke. There is no simple formula for anything at work, especially something as complex as engagement.

Instead of searching for solutions to poorly defined problems you assume exist, start instead with asking good questions. Let me suggest a few:

1. What does it mean to be engaged?
2. Why does it matter?
3. How do you know what it means and why it matters?
4. Are you engaged?

How can you hope to ever engage your employees unless and until you have a clear understanding of what engagement might be? And if you are not engaged with your work, do you really believe your employees can’t tell or that it’s irrelevant?

I like the concept of engagement as investing your hands, head, and heart in active, full work performance. I am willing to bet that very few people you know, including yourself, can say this is true about every hour of every day of their own work. Even if this does happen for you daily, it most likely occurs only a few times during the day and with intensity for only relatively brief periods of time.

We know from our personal experience that engagement can be very enjoyable, but let’s be real here. If we did somehow manage to be fully engaged most of the time at work, we’d be physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. In case you don’t recognize that, it’s called burnout.

I love the concept of work engagement, but as I’ve said many times before, the engagement hype far exceeds the high quality, peer-reviewed evidence. I know it may be heresy in some workplaces, but it’s OK to be skeptical about engagement right now. Use some common sense and think through the answers to a few important questions about your own engagement before you engage your employees with efforts to improve theirs.

Be honest with yourself and your employees – we are not there yet. Not even close.

Thanks for sharing your perspective, Bret!

Leadership must be nothing less than a creative process by which isolated souls can touch one another to set off sparks of insight, initiative, and social energy to cope with a far more demanding world.
William E. Halal

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