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  • Paul Hobin

Challenged by Employee Engagement? That's Not What You Hired Them For (Among Other Problems)

Updated: Jun 8, 2021

Engagement: it leads through ideas, enthusiasm, initiative, solutions and results to corporate performance

The premise of this article: Companies want engagement and many spend a great deal of money trying to generate it. A truly engaged staff producing change that moves the enterprise forward will be a key to success in the near future. So why don’t companies see more engagement among their employees? Because what they SAY about engagement is negated by what they DO that transmits the incorrect message to employees: engagement doesn’t matter.


One of my employers surveyed all 50,000 staff every two years on work and employer-employee issues. Engagement was always one of the topics they asked about; they were interested in why we were, or more commonly were not, engaged with the employer’s programs and goals.

Looking around my department I saw the usual blasé attitude about engagement from many of my colleagues. Work was……well, work. It was something to get done. It was a set of tasks to perform, a job description to fulfill, and let’s just get to Friday. It was a paycheck.

Don’t get me wrong: they were responsible and good at what they did. But they weren’t engaged in much beyond what was necessary.

Engagement was for other people – specifically management, and the few staff interested in making it to that level.

This wasn’t the only workplace where I saw the employer struggling with engagement and spending significant money trying to improve it. I suspect most do.

So why are staff not engaged with the employer’s goals and vision? And how do we get more people more engaged?

Start At The Beginning: Recruitment

Are you selecting applicants who demonstrate an engaged attitude, or are you actually selecting the opposite?

Most of my interviews have been a “closed box” based on a fixed set of tasks in a job description. Can you do these 10 tasks? Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, you're hired. (Or if you don't get all the ticks, you're not). Not one question about anything outside the box.

Employers want broad thinking, problem solving and interest in the direction of the enterprise, they want real vision and enthusiasm and not just a bucket of technical skills, but they don't interview and hire for it. They hire for narrowly focused people and then wonder why they're only interested in one thing. They hire for "right now" support without a thought to what this person might – or might not – contribute in two to five years.

If you want engagement and initiative, interview and hire for engagement and initiative. Ask a question like these:

  • What would you most like to have changed in your last position, and what did you do about it?

The candidate may or may not have succeeded in their change effort; either may be a positive indication. The engaged employee with good ideas who can’t get anything done in a stagnant bureaucracy will seek fulfillment elsewhere. If you identify an attitude of engagement coupled with a failure to succeed, it’s a positive sign that their deep need to find someplace they can contribute outweighs their need to remain securely with an unsatisfactory situation. If you can provide an environment where their creativity is allowed to flourish, you'll both win.

  • Tell us about something you’ve done or a project you’ve completed that was entirely outside your job description.

Look not only for what they did, but why they did it. If the candidate doesn’t volunteer the why, prompt for it. Why wasn’t the accepted standard or process good enough? Were they asked to perform the task, or did they think it up and initiate the work themselves? If they initiated, why create change if change has not been asked for?

Engagement isn’t just about being on board with plans that management has created. The real power of engagement is the creative potential it unlocks in non-management employees. If you want these engaged employees, start by hiring them that way.

Once You're Recruiting for Engagement, Promote For Engagement

If you’ve been discouraging engagement in your recruiting have you also been discouraging it with your promotion process?

Quite possibly, if the company has bought the idea that hiring and promotion competitions must be objectively fair and transparent with the winner chosen algorithmically on the basis of their superior, scored interview responses to a fixed list of pre-set questions delivered in rotation by a panel so that all interviews are identical, giving no applicant unfair advantage.

Except that this gives unfair advantage to those few people that excel at this type of interview and burns everyone else, which may include some of your best, most engaged employees.

“The best” are not found and selected with an algorithm. They’re not recognized with a fixed process of rigid rules. We can’t count keywords uttered and score our way to the right decision. We are dealing with people in their infinite variety and capability. And if we’ve accepted the fair-transparent-objective-rule-bound candidate selection theory we may have forgotten that “one size fits all” is not a good management system. In hiring and promotion as in all things managerial, finding a balance between fair consistency, and recognizing the individuality of your people, is key. Too much "fair consistency" is inherently unfair in its assumption of identical attributes.

Promotions shouldn’t be granted by formal competition. Daily work and daily engagement should be “the competition” for which people win the reward of promotion. If, after all that your best people have accomplished, they must compete for recognition (possibly against some pretty dim bulbs) they’re hearing that all that effort, creativity and contribution means little. Don’t expect them to hang around long. And good luck with that newly promoted dim bulb with a real knack for blowing smoke in interviews!

Allow Engagement When It Presents Itself

Perusing our process improvement e-bulletin board I read a well-reasoned employee proposal for a change and the employer’s formal response: the employee proposal could not be considered while the same issue was being discussed by management, which the response documented they had been doing for two years with no results to date. Inviting engagement and then shoving it in a corner for a two-year time out unequivocally kills any possibility of getting engagement from that employee again.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. A major process went obsolete with the introduction of a new contract with elements outside the parameters of the process’s technology. I sought approval for 30 hours of effort to accomplish two things: update the process to work with the new contract and cut the labor required to execute the process by a third which I considered to be conservative given the opportunities for easy fixes. Answer: no; we’re eliminating the entire process with an online solution.

I kept proposing fixes, they kept being rejected because of “the big project that’s going to solve everything.” When I left seven years later the “big project” was still not done. The process had not been updated and was still in workaround mode with the attendant inefficiency and error rate.

Engagement that employees volunteer without you having to work for it is a gift. Don’t refuse it!

Don't Invite Engagement...But Then Formalize It Out Of Reach

Formal engagement programs are great; by all means have one. But engagement should occur at every level from paradigm shifting projects that need a formal process, to making one data point more accurate which not only does not, but will suffer from being formalized.

Don’t invite engagement and then say “write a formal proposal which will enter a competition to choose three ideas per quarter that will advance to the executive committee, which will choose one for implementation.”

Again, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having a highly formalized process for the big ideas, but real engagement is about a continuous flow of dozens of small ideas more than it is about a few major ones. Jim Collins identifies this type of atmosphere as a factor in taking a very few enterprises from Good To Great in his book of the same name. He calls it “the flywheel effect”.

Collins points out that very few exceptional companies got there via one big idea like the iPod. Who can name the “breakthrough” product or idea at 3M, Walgreen’s or Kimberly Clark? You can’t because there wasn’t one. None of these companies had an “iPod moment” yet they are all exceptionally successful. Why? Thousands of small improvements, added together, constantly building on and reinforcing each other.

It’s counterintuitive, but most exceptionally successful companies will achieve that stature through small ideas, not big ones. It’s the power of the “compounding interest” of many small ideas that produces the result.

Collins puts it this way:

No matter how dramatic the end result, the good-to-great transformations never happened in one fell swoop. There was no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no wrenching revolution. Good to great comes about by a cumulative process – step by step, action by action, decision by decision, turn by turn of the flywheel – that adds up to sustained and spectacular results.

Make sure your managers and employees understand that the formal engagement process is important but not the centerpiece of your total engagement program. Simple ideas from average employees, quickly adopted – that’s the centerpiece.

Harness Engagement With a Performance Appraisal System That Works

Many employers flow down strategies and goals all the way from the CEO to staff through the objectives set out in formal performance appraisal (PA) systems. I’ve yet to see it work. That’s too bad, because I like a formal, documented PA and I believe in their potential.

A portion of the workforce may always be cynical about PAs. But the engaged portion is going to draw energy from a performance plan with a true and clear connection to corporate goals and direction. They hunger to contribute and participate in success. They’re driving themselves; all you need to do is steer that energy with a good set of corporate-linked PA objectives!

Why do formal PAs often not work as intended? Because there are a lot of links in the chain of command between the CEO and the administrative staff, and if just one of those links doesn’t execute the concept well the chain is broken. PAs may be done haphazardly, ignoring higher level strategies or possibly substituting strategies aligned to their own interests and not those of the company.

As PAs transition to online platforms it becomes possible to collect information from the entire employee population – such as answers to the questions “Do you understand corporate goals and strategies?” and “Does your PA set out personal objectives that align with these corporate goals and strategies?” If there’s a branch in the organization with a statistically odd incidence of “noes” the root of that branch may be the broken link.

Have a Technique to Default to Yes

It’s natural to think of all the reasons why something won’t work the moment a proposal is floated. I do it too. Companies need to aggressively promulgate a technique to managers to counteract our natural inclination to “default to no”.

There’s nothing wrong with thinking about and voicing concerns. Fine – get it out! Feel better? Now move on, by thinking through the proposal from a slightly different angle. What are the risks? What’s the most negative thing that can happen? In many cases risk is negligible. So default to yes and let the employee run with it!

If the idea works, fantastic. If it fails, the employee has learned about what doesn’t work, and why. This is important. Employees don’t want to repeatedly volunteer extra effort that results in repeated failure. They’re going to learn from their efforts that don’t work and get better at zeroing in on the ideas that will. But they can’t get there if the bulk of their ideas have been shot down by the default-to-no propensity we all have.

We all believe our ideas would have succeeded, if only we’d been allowed to implement them. Failure can be the best teacher. “Saving” staff from the bad idea (that they remain convinced would have been a winner) will only kill their engagement. Free your engaged employees to learn from experience when the risks permit it and watch as they grow into more dependable sources of successful ideas.

It’s Not What You Say…

The “engagement problem” is a classic example of “it’s not what you say, it’s what you do”. You can spend a million a year on conferences and get-togethers to talk about engagement, but if you’re hiring for a narrow focus, promoting based on a formula that discounts actual accomplishment, defaulting to “no” and otherwise turning down engagement that’s presenting itself spontaneously, the conferences are not going to matter.

The irony is that engagement is something that companies can achieve almost for free. It’s all about how you treat people – and their ideas.

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