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Why Employee Engagement Is Not a Unicorn, and Other Engagement Myths, Busted

Amy Leschke-Kahle, VP Performance Acceleration, The Marcus Buckingham Company, an ADP company

Amy Leschke-Kahle, VP Performance Acceleration, The Marcus Buckingham Company, an ADP company

Why should Anyone Care about Employee Engagement?

It’s a fair question that I find companies think too little about employee engagement. Talent management professionals are constantly seeking for their workforce on the other hand. Often elusive and undefined, we often peg engagement as the unicorn of talent management.

"There is data, there are tools, and there is evidence to what makes for extraordinary engagement, and now, it’s up to you"

Perhaps this is because, over the years, we as a collective HR community have jumped straight to the ‘how’ of engagement – How can I make my employees more productive? How can I make them happier? How can I keep them from leaving? We’ve focused on the results rather than the reason. We’ve accepted that engagement is a momentous and difficult task without taking the time to think about what engagement is and why we so desperately seek it. Add increased pressure from popular culture for the perfectly “engaged culture” and we’ve seen no shortage of solutions for how to tackle engagement.

Employee engagement is not a unicorn, but it is extraordinary. I define engagement as helping employees play more in their “extraordinary” zone each day they come to work. Engagement isn’t 100 different factors that increase employee retention and make them more productive. It’s not a pat on the back nor a warm, fuzzy feeling. At its core, engagement is a precursor to employees doing their own unique, best work that only they are capable of doing.

From my perspective as someone who helps businesses define and accelerate employees’ engagement needs, I’ve realized that businesses can be at three different stages in their relative awareness. First, there are companies not thinking about engagement at all. Second, there are companies beginning to realize engagement needs to be addressed. Third, there are smart companies constantly seeking a better route to engagement. It takes a brave and intelligent HR professional to admit that there is a better way to achieve engagement and that some of the engagement notions we’ve built as talent management community are, in fact, myths.

Here are some of the common myths surrounding employee engagement, and how HR professionals can rectify them within their walls.

Myth 1: Employees will only be engaged if they want to be

Plain and simple, employees have more in them to offer. For years, companies that have failed to unearth extra productivity from their employees have accepted that high-performers are high-performers and low-performers are low-performers, and that’s as good as it gets. In actuality, everyone can raise the bar, and doing so is a matter of creating space for engagement to happen. This requires a few steps: knowing your people for the best of themselves, focusing the work around those strengths, and creating an environment where their best work thrives. HR professionals who are onleading-edge of talent activation recognize that we should not rely on old assumptions and instead work to create environments where engagement emerges naturally.

Myth 2: Engagement Comes from the Top-Down

Engagement is not a memo from the CEO or a well-designed PowerPoint that you show to employees when they’re on-boarded. Engagement lives and dies where the work is – on teams and with team leaders. Team leaders are the critical inflection points for managing team performance, ensuring quality, and retaining frontline workers, and thus, are largely responsible for creating those conditions in which engagement thrives. If companies want to double down on anything to drive engagement, they need to do so with their investment in team leaders.

Myth 3: Engagement is Complex and Unpredictable

We’ve been conditioned to think of engagement as a huge, hairy task – as the 76 things that need to be perfectly aligned in order for employees to thrive. HR leaders are busy and often pushed to solve so many things– organizing and communicating benefits, recruiting a diverse slate of candidates, enacting business initiatives, and preparing for a multi-generational workforce – all the while trying to figure out how to engage their workforce. What I like to say is that engagement is not the messy many, it’s the critical few. At the end of day, we’re all human. All leaders need to do is pay attention to their people for the best of themselves. When it comes to driving engagement, cut the noise and focus on what really matters, which is listening to and supporting your people.

Myth 4: Engagement Requires Tons of Time and energy

Engagement might seem like an incalculably huge lift, but all it boils down to is ensuring that managers are having radically frequent check-ins with their employees. Businesses should stop their backward-looking approaches with once-annual check-ins and instead create a forward-looking framework in which managers check-in with employees on a radically frequent basis. This ensures that employees feel supported in their roles and can happen in as little as 10 minutes a week. As a team leader, this is the most important ways to spend your time.

Myth 5: Engagement is a target

How many annual engagement surveys have you performed or been a part of? While we used to think a real time engagement read could be conducted once a year, the rise of the engaged culture has helped break that myth. We shouldn’t be afraid to see engagement go up or down, but we should fear that we may not know where engagement is, what to do about it or what we may actually be measuring. That said, we have to be careful how we measure engagement as these days, engagement can mean a lot. We often advise our clients to focus on four key things: asking the right questions of the right people at the right time with the right actions.

This brings us to the why – Why, at the end of the day, is employee engagement so vital? It’s because it’s all you have left as a company. The business world has squeezed processes and practices to death. Businesses have one secret weapon that will differentiate them from their competitors and keep them afloat, their people.

HR leaders, this is your time. There is data, there are tools, and there is evidence to what makes for extraordinary engagement, and now, it’s up to you. In the same way you help employees daily bring through unique talents, this is your opportunity to bring through yours and make your mark on the workplace and world.