Engagement - Not At Any Cost

We have regularly written about the importance of engagement and the leadership role in making it happen.  In a recent article authored by Tony Schwartz he argues that the original concept has to change.   Twelve years ago he co-wrote a book called “The Power of Full Engagement.”

For the last two decades, measuring employee engagement has been the primary way that larger companies try to determine their employees’ level of commitment and productivity.  In turn, dozens of studies have reported a correlation between high employee engagement and performance.  We have reviewed most of these in the past and it seems that nearly every large organisation now administers some form of engagement survey to its workers.

So What’s the Problem?

The most common definition of engagement is “the willingness to invest discretionary effort at work” — that is, to go above and beyond what’s expected.  That sounds good if you’re an employer.  But too often, it refers to employees who get to work early, stay late and remain connected at night and on weekends.  That’s a recipe for burnout, not enduring high performance. Put another way, “willing” does not guarantee “able.”  And “willing” does not equate with “balance” as we shall see.

An engagement study conducted in 2012 by the consulting firm Towers Watson — involving 32,000 employees in 29 markets around the world — found that high engagement as it has been traditionally defined is no longer sufficient to fuel the highest levels of performance.

Sustainably Engaged

The companies with the highest profit margins had a different employee profile. “Sustainably engaged” is the what Towers Watson came up with to describe employees who felt their companies energised them by promoting their physical, emotional and social well-being. The top two drivers of performance were:

  • having leaders who built trust by demonstrating a sincere interest in employee well-being, and
  • having manageable stress levels, with a reasonable balance between work and personal life.

Companies in which employees reported feeling well taken care of — including not working too many hours — had twice the operating profit margins of those with traditionally engaged employees, and three times the profit levels of those with the least engaged employees.

The real problem is that in offices all around the world there are people – managers and other employees - running on empty.  Maybe was the recession and fear but too many companies are pushing people to their limits in the name of efficiency and survival.

We celebrate “great places to work” but as Tony Swartz points out, “if you are expected to work 60 or 70 hours a week, or to stay connected in the evenings and on the weekends, or you can’t take at least four weeks of vacation a year, or you don’t have reasonable flexibility about when and where you work, then your company can’t be a great place to work.”

Higher Purpose or Oppression for Purpose

Swartz argues that this is true even if the company has a noble mission and a higher purpose beyond profit.  Several weeks ago, at a conference held by the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, which was founded by Paul Newman, more than 30 chief executives from such companies as Allstate, Western Union, the American International Group and Merck spent the morning sharing the often ambitious initiatives they had started.  Swartz reports that it was inspiring and a cause for optimism that many chief executives were recognising their responsibility for more than the financial interests of their shareholders.

Even a basic understanding of motivation theory would tell us that it’s not realistic to expect employees to invest in a higher purpose if their employers aren’t meeting their core (hygiene) needs.  You can maybe think of several companies that have a mission to make a positive difference in the world, but essentially do so on the backs of their employees.  In a beautifully evocative phrase, “Oppression by purpose” is the way one employee at one company described it.

You might have observed a parallel phenomenon among employees who work in mission-driven organisations like hospitals, schools and social services.  These people are highly inspired to go above and beyond in their work on behalf of others, but they often feel less well supported by their own organisations when it comes to making sure that they are able to take care of themselves.  Over time, many begin to suffer from “compassion fatigue” — another version of “willing but not able.”

So often a chief executive will speak of being busy, with a hectic schedule, to demonstrate their commitment - by example - to the organisation.  They will tell stories, with visible pride, to demonstrate how they and you must work hard for the success of the company.  These chief executives are plainly fully engaged, but at what cost — not just to themselves over time, but in the message they are sending to everyone else in their organisation?

What companies really need to measure is not just how engaged their employees are, but also how consistently energised and satisfied they feel. That means focusing not just on inspiring them and giving them opportunities to truly add value in the world, but also on caring for them and providing sufficient time to rest and refuel.

Leaders: Don’t Leave it Too Late

In 2005, Eugene O’Kelly, then the chief executive of the accounting firm KPMG, was told he had a brain tumor. In the final months of his life, he wrote a book called “Chasing Daylight,” reconsidering the life he had lived.

“What if I hadn’t worked so hard?” Mr. O’Kelly asked.“What if, aside from doing my job and doing it well, I had actually used the bully pulpit of my position to be a role model for balance? Had I done so intentionally, who’s to say that, besides having more time with my family, I wouldn’t also have been even more focused at work? More creative? More productive?”

Mr. O’Kelly died shortly after writing those words, before he could answer his own question.  Swartz argues that no chief executives of any large company that he’s aware of have truly stepped up to use their bully pulpits (a position of authority that provides its occupant with an opportunity to speak out on any issue) to be models and spokesmen for a balanced life — actively creating a culture that truly meets people’s multi-dimensional needs.

That is what is needed now, more than ever — chief executives truly willing to make the care of people their highest priority, beginning with themselves. 

Surely you know this to be true – don’t leave it too late to act.