If employee engagement is so important to the success of an organization, why are only 26 percent to 29 percent of employees in the average company fully engaged? Research shows employee engagement significantly improves performance, loyalty and profitability. This makes the paradoxical gap between desired results and actual results so compelling. How can this be?
Engagement is a heightened emotional connection that an employee feels for his/her work such that he/she is willing to exert greater discretionary effort to accomplish tasks, innovate, solve problems, and/or improve work. Optimal engagement is needed now more than ever because our economy has changed to global from local. The only true competitive advantage is to utilize the innovative nature of the human mind to solve problems faster than the competition. In the beginning of the industrial age much of our work was routine, employees were not well educated, and therefore the work itself did not require employees to use much of their brain power. Times have changed and we need an “upgrade in theory” to bring us to the global age.
Employee engagement is a competitive advantage and managers recognize its importance and work hard to achieve it, right? But, they are dismal at achieving it. This is because the typical manager is using “enslavement” thinking not “engagement” thinking. The two main enslavement policies that are the result of this thinking are 1) the typical performance appraisal linked to 2) pay for performance. According to Hewitt Associates, a leading human resources consulting firm, 90 percent of organizations have some form of these policies to “motivate” their workforce. This is up from only 80 percent in 2001.
The typical manager is using enslavement policies because that is how we have all been taught to think about people and problems. Perhaps you are thinking, “How arrogant! How can 90 percent of very smart managers be wrong?” They can be wrong for the same reason Galileo was criticized and put under house arrest until his death for claiming the sun is the center of the universe (Copernicus’ theory). Ninety percent can also be wrong for the same reason Einstein was called a kook by most of his scientific colleagues when he, using his new Theory of Relativity, made a prediction that light from the sun would be bent by gravity during a solar eclipse.
We have been taught a pair of theories that are no longer useful for creating optimal engagement: B.F. Skinner with his theory of Behaviorism and Frederick Taylor with his theory of Scientific Management. If we want optimal enslavement these theories work well. If we want optimal engagement, we need new theories.
Frederick Taylor’s scientific method of management was implemented to improve productivity and it did, to a point. Unfortunately it has reached its limit because it employs management to solve problems and ignores the brain power of employees to solve problems. This same theory is used in our schools where it is the teacher who is omnipotent and has all the answers to the tests and the students who must do and remember what they are told.
Taylor encouraged the use of the performance appraisal because his scientific method depended upon the manager being omnipotent and being in a position of control. The all knowing manager creates the ideal method according to a scientific set of steps. The manager’s job is then to evaluate the employees to be sure they are doing that exact ideal method. It is the manager’s job to know how well the employee is doing his/her work. If the employee needs improvement the all-knowing manager will tell them what to do. This is where the current performance appraisal fits in. A performance appraisal is at best controlling not motivating. Research shows that fewer than 50 percent of manages believe performance appraisals actually improve individual and organizational performance. Controlling behaviors is enslavement.
B.F. Skinner made popular our current addiction to pay for performance. Using animals in his experiments he “proved” that behavior is simply an outcome of genetics and rewards and those rewards could motivate. He then made the claim that the same is true for humans. WRONG! Humans are much more complex and are motivated by much more than a simple reward. Alfie Kohn, in his landmark work, Punished by Rewards, lays out a solid argument against pay for performance. Kohn argues that pay for performance creates many unintended consequences such as diminished interest in the task, a reduction in the focus on the customer, a diminished focus on quality, competition instead of cooperation, etc. The unintended consequences created were the opposite needed for engagement.
Research studies show reward are not the top motivator. At best, it is fourth behind challenge, making a difference, personal achievement, enjoyment, etc. Managers continue to use rewards to improve performance because we have been addicted to a theory that holds us back from achieving engagement. The pay for performance’s mantra, “Do this and you will get that” is a just another method of control. Control is enslavement.
What theory must we embrace to upgrade our cultures of engagement? Two gentlemen have helped me to answer this question, Rob LeBow and Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Both LeBow and Deming have a deep respect for people. They each offer a unique approach to motivation that when combined provides a complete new theory to optimize engagement. I combine their two theories to form the Values and System Management Model. This model can move us away from enslavement and provide a guide to create long term engagement.
This management model has two elements and a new set of assumptions about people. The two elements are 1) Values Behaviors and 2) An Appreciation for a System. Values behaviors include the very basis of building trust. Trust is a critical element of an organization’s culture and it forms the foundation for high engagement.
Values behaviors include specific operational descriptions of integrity, respect and customer focus. By understanding and minimizing the variation in those behaviors within the organization, managers and employees can improve trust. Improved trust leads to reduced fear, increased creativity, risk taking and efficient problem solving. Higher trust improves communication flow which leads to improved work flow. Values behaviors are those behaviors individuals can control. This model acknowledges that the system within which people work has more of an impact on their individual performance than their individual choices. Employees can only control their actions and reactions. The values behaviors ensure, regardless of the situation, that people will act with integrity, respect for each other, and focus on improving their customer’s experience (both internal and external customers).
Any theory, by definition, embraces certain assumptions. Assumptions lead to questions which lead to decisions about policies and procedures. We need to reset our theories to reset our assumptions about people to achieve engagement.
Improving the system over time must happen concurrently while people live the values behaviors. Dr. Deming’s theory of Profound Knowledge provides us with a way of thinking that can help managers accomplish this. Optimization of the system is management’s main job.