Employee engagement is so over! Ok, maybe not quite

Team discussing ideas

For anyone who is paying attention, it doesn’t take long to tell that prevailing management dogma of the 21st century is that the future is uncertain, that change is the new normal and that change will only continue to happen faster than it ever has before.

In response to this, two predominant views about the modern workforce have emerged. The first is that having the best talent is essential to the future success of any organization. The second is that having a highly engaged workforce is the most effective route to mobilize that talent to deliver what is needed. The outcomes of these beliefs are easily seen in the initiatives and job titles found in HR functions around the world. Indeed, even the annual conference for the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology has been dominated by these topics for at least the last 15 years as academics and practitioners debate research about the right way to approach them.

And yet after more than 20 years of focusing on both talent and engagement the challenges associated with adapting to a constantly shifting business environment do not seem to have been solved. In fact there are now more questions than ever about how to build and manage a workforce that is sustainably competitive – one that has the energy to deliver what is needed today and the foresight to reinvent itself for tomorrow. Current approaches to Employee Engagement and Talent Management do not (yet) seem to have been the solution for either of these problems.

So what value has the study and practice of talent management and employee engagement brought to us? Have we learnt anything useful from all the work that has been done in these areas? I would argue that the answer is yes and there are three reasons why we will continue to see employee engagement and talent management as continued areas of focus for most organizations:

1. The natural consequences of human hierarchy

The first reason is that many leaders are still seeking help to overcome the feedback imbalance caused by the power dynamics of hierarchy. As long as human communities have existed, they have had hierarchies - people with different levels of status, usually based on how much power and influence they hold. While hierarchies have proven to be a relatively useful organizing principle for getting things done, the power imbalances they create often mean that people with more status (e.g. leaders) are less likely to hear what frustrates people at more junior levels. Indeed as we have noted before, it is very unusual for employees to feel that they can honestly and openly criticize their bosses without paying the consequences. As a result leaders reach for management information systems to provide better data and greater transparency into the way their organization is functioning. In recent times employee engagement programs have become a critical component of these systems, especially for larger companies. I would argue that the relevance of this sort of employee experience data will only become more important as companies seek to build more agile teams that thrive on feedback to drive their performance. We can probably attribute the recent uptick and interest in pulse surveys to this as managers and HR functions look for a more consistent stream of insights and ideas to serve a more dynamic business environment.

2. Uncertain times require a sense of optimism

The second reason is that many employees find the uncertainty caused by a constant sense of change to be rather uncomfortable. Indeed, another truth about the nature of human nature is that most people crave consistency and predictability. In times where those things are in short supply, an environment of anxiety is likely to prevail. Research suggests that the outcome of this will be people who are more stressed, less healthy and more narrow in their thinking (i.e. less creative and open) - which has real consequences for long term growth, sustainability and innovation. As a result organizations have woken up to the idea that they need to be building a stronger sense of confidence, optimism and community in their workforce. For example many forward thinking people analytics & HR teams have been focusing on finding out what keeps people really motivated and engaged at work, especially in fast growing businesses where change happens very quickly. The result is that many now aim to foster a work environment where people are committed to a cause, contributing to success and captivated by the future. Most current employee engagement practices are in service of all these things.

3. Work that isn’t engaging is hardly worth doing

The third reason is that people in the 21st century value their subjective experiences very highly and so expect their engagement to be important to their employer. In addition, research shows that people often underestimate the importance of intrinsic motivation at work and overweight the long term benefits of their career or lifestyle opportunity. The outcome is that people will often start a job or career because they believe it will give them what they want in the medium or long term, but then become disengaged when they find the day to day experience of it disappointing. They promptly blame their employer for this poor experience and quietly start to check out at work. This is why talent management, engagement and to some extent emerging technologies really do overlap. It’s very difficult to have an engaged workforce if you are not getting the right talent into the right job – and a big component of that is ensuring that the talent will actually like doing the work. Emerging technology also gives us the opportunity to eliminate transactional tasks (which people hate anyway) and really reinvent the nature of work to make it more engaging. The organizations that get the talent and technology equation right have the biggest opportunity to create engaging work that is really worth doing.

Thoughts for the future

The predominant paradigm for people performance in the 21st century has been the search for the right combination of both talent and engagement at work. As new ways of working emerge, it’s possible we will see the evolution of these ideas as we strive to find ways to really help people thrive at work. My view is that organizations will reshape their focus on talent to take a much stronger interest in the personal and professional growth and potential of the people who work for them (the emerging focus on “growth mindset” is a good indication of this). And in order for that growth to be sustainable, organizations will also reframe how they think about engagement, focusing more on helping people feel a sustainable sense of vitality at work. When organizations get growth and vitality right they will really see the benefits of a thriving workforce

Lewis Garrad
by Lewis Garrad

Partner and Career Business Leader at Mercer Singapore