The Future Of Engagement

I am giving a keynote today at the Employee Engagement and Awards conference in NYC. This is a loose version of my notes.

My topic is The Future of Engagement, but I start with the present, where employee engagement is pretty horrible. How horrible? Very horrible. And why? Bad bosses.

  • Only 21% feel appreciated at work, and 49% are not satisfied with their direct supervisor [1]
  • An Aarhus University study [2] found strong correlation between worker depression and the sense of being treated unfairly by immediate supervisors.
  • Bad management is cited by over a third as the reason they’d quit a job [3] and rate their boss’ performance as poor or fair.
  • 60% percent of employees believe bad bosses (those who are demanding, overbearing, and mean) have the greatest negative impact on work-life balance [4]
  • Research by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman has shown [5] a straight line correlation between levels of employee engagement and our measure of the overall effectiveness of their supervisors (as judged not just by the employees themselves but by their bosses, colleagues, and other associates on 360 assessments).
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  • Researchers showed that when Sears employee satisfaction increased 5% customer satisfaction improved 1.3%, which for $40 billion Sears meant a $250 million increase in sales.

Peter Drucker wrote,

Much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work.

We have to clear that up, and treat management as a necessary evil: only as much as needed, and no more.

The future of engagement therefore hangs on reworking the ‘reporting’ relationship, loosening the bonds between the boss and the bossed, and decreasing the anxieties and fear that this overloaded relationship has.

What if we aspired to end first line managers, and structured around greater autonomy for nearly everyone? What if other factors turned out to be more powerful than even the benefits of good bosses?

McKinsey [6] found executive board diversity to be a huge force multiplier:

The findings were startlingly consistent: for companies ranking in the top quartile of executive-board diversity, ROEs were 53 percent higher, on average, than they were for those in the bottom quartile.

Inclusion and diversity when paired, have an enormous impact on engagement: the top versus the bottom quartile of inclusiveness can have 82 times higher engagement [7], based on a Roundpegg study [8] looking at companies like Nike.

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So, diversity and inclusion — together — can have an enormous impact on engagement of workers, and that’s where companies should be pushing.

A great deal of ink and breath is expended on empty thoughts about corporate culture. ‘Culture’ has become a grab bag of anything that anybody ever thought, including a lot of groundless opinions.

Here’s an example: the Shared Vision meme.

When it comes to company culture, it’s important to share the same vision across your organization. — Alyssa Retallick, Glassdoor

“Share’ in this case can come to mean ‘impose’. One continuing element of the non-democratic nature of work is the premise that there should be a single ‘vision’ for the business coming from the founder or upper management, and that everyone else should accept this vision unquestioningly and hew to its implications.

The reality is that high-performing companies — with the highest levels of engagement — actively promote dissent, not group think. There should not be an ‘official future’ indoctrinated into every mind in the company. It’s maladaptive in a world that is rapidly changing and uncertain.

Or consider the metaphor that employees are ‘resources’, ‘assets’, or just people filling ‘roles’. These characterizations dehumanize people, and make them seem nameless, faceless trons working like automata. Employees are people, pursuing their own goals and ends. We don’t have to subordinate ourselves totally to the company’s aims. And trying to make us do so will lead to disengagement.

What then is culture? It’s what emerges from what people do, say, and think. We can’t impose it, we can only influence it.

It’s well-known that it is very hard to change people’s core psychological orientation. And the same holds with culture. But you can lead people to change their behaviors: what they say and do. And the best way is by example: by changing what we each say and do.

Work on the say and do, and the thinking will follow.

As you might imagine, that is a slow road to increased engagement, although measuring what people are saying and doing is a good proxy for what they are thinking.

Culture management tools are those geared toward that: asking employees questions about work and analyze the answers as a way to measure workforce sentiment and trends. This is a way to triangulate on what they are thinking, and from that to get a sense of engagement. And, as a next step, put programs and initiatives in place to accomplish the ‘say and do’ aspect of things.

Other factors — reworking the reporting relationship, better (and fewer) bosses, and increased diversity and inclusion in the workforce — will likely trump culture management. But consider it as something like vitamins: not enough to ensure wellbeing, but a good thing to do.

The future of engagement lies in the adoption of these principles, and we have a long way to go.

Written by

Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

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