The myth of employee engagement

#WorkTrends: Why Employee Engagement is a Joke

Mark Babbitt, President of WorqIQ, joined #WorkTrends host Meghan M. Biro on January 10, 2020 to discuss key issues surrounding employee engagement.

Meghan introduced the topic by noting that only half of all employees feel like they have a career. Mark expanded on this fact, suggesting that we’ve turned employee engagement from a good idea into a joke because engagement levels remain the same as they were in the 1980s. “With eight million blog posts and hundreds of experts on this subject, why have we not fixed anything?” he asked.

Mark is a colleague of Meghan’s and a longtime friend of TalentCulture. He’s also the president of WorqIQ, a community and change management consultancy, and CEO and founder of YouTern, a career site for college students and young professionals.

Mark’s upcoming book is Good Comes First: How Companies Can Create an Uncompromising Company Culture in a Confrontational World. And he’s one of Inc.’s Top 100 Leadership Speakers. Which means he’s been tracking the story of employee engagement for a long time.

“The data proves that employee engagement is a myth,” he said. “We have spent 30-plus years discussing this. Organizations and governments have spent billions of dollars on ’employee engagement’ and we have had zero impact. Every poll out there tells us that we haven’t moved the needle one bit. That employees are either disengaged or actively disengaged.” The two set-out to uncover what might actually undo the impasse. What they found is changing the game entirely.

Random Acts of Leadership

The problem is that we can’t manipulate engagement, Mark said, “Engagement is a human process.” Meghan suggested a shift to thinking about experience — so long as it’s really about people. True, Mark noted. Experience has to be a factor from the employee’s perspective. Without being able to determine and report their own experience and weigh-in on the impact of leadership, organizational values, benefits and more, an employee has no voice. This means employee/employer relationship isn’t really a mutually beneficial relationship, it’s really only unilateral management. 

What would shift the balance? “Random Acts of Leadership,” as Mark puts it. In other words, leaders actually need to walk up to employees and ask real questions, like “What are you working on today? How can I help? What resources can I push in your direction? What are your obstacles to success?” Conversations like this move the needle far more than any tools, he said. Also it helps when leaders sit down for a cup of coffee with people in intimate settings. It’s important to be real and be human.

Workplace Intelligence

Beyond simply improving employee experience, it’s important to achieve workplace intelligence, according to Mark. But Meghan cautioned, “Let’s just make sure it’s not just another buzzword.” Mark agreed, and explained that it’s a tangible stack of 5 workplace factors:

  • The most dominant leadership style that people deal with every day
  • The organization’s culture and climate
  • Purpose-driven performance
  • Employee engagement/experience, but entirely redefined
  • A sense of community

All of these define a workplace that attracts people, Mark said. “When I go to work today I feel like this is where I belong.”

Next, Meghan asked Mark to share his predictions on the future of work — a signature question on #WorkTrends — he got serious. He said he things the future depends on a new breed of leader: More compassionate, less command-and-control.

“Leaders will realize that employees recognize the need to take time for ourselves, our children, our elderly parents. It’s going to be so retro that it will almost seem revolutionary.”

Listen to the full conversation. And don’t forget to subscribe to the #WorkTrends podcast series so you don’t miss an episode!

Transcript Excerpt:

[04:34} They didn’t have leaders that cared. They didn’t build mutually beneficial relationships with employees. They just started manipulating. They got this little software program that said, “Oh it’s Becky’s five year anniversary. Go say congratulations.”

Mark Babbitt on Linkedin and Twitter

Photo: Kobu Agency