Humans are not logical beings. We're emotional animals.
That goes a long way to explaining why employee engagement initiatives at companies have failed over the past 20 years. Bosses approach their workers as if they're rational. Employees react to perceived slights with their hearts and pretend they're using their brains.
That's part of the message "energy architect" Brady Wilson is trying to get across in his new book, Beyond Engagement: A Brain-Based Approach That Blends the Engagement Managers Want with the Energy Employees Need. As you can tell by the length of his book title, Wilson has much to share.
Your Employees are a Mess
At the heart of his message is that in today's hyperkinetic world, where people don't have enough time for work or for home, where most businesses run on just-enough staff with ever-shrinking budgets, employees are stressed out, burned out, rundown.
Some HR types might believe that employee engagement initiatives, first heralded in the 1990s, are still the panacea. Wilson believes engagement has run out of shelf life.
Engagement efforts at this point, he says, are now leading to more disengagement. It’s a downward spiral that he calls the “engagement paradox.” Too many employee engagement surveys whose results either led to workplace changes disconnected from what employees actually wanted or, worse, "went into a black hole" of inaction.
The problem again comes down to human nature.
Company Coffee Mugs Don't Cut It
Leaders look at engagement survey data and tend to focus on measures of rational engagement, Wilson explains. How can we get these scores up, dammit!?
"What they often do is come back with a recognition program. It’s all about tchotchkes, it's about stuff, it’s about pizza parties," he says.
The result: workers who are still engaged and high performing but are frustrated (by the way, we're not even talking about the middling to low-level performers that constitute most of a workforce, or the saboteurs at the bottom 5 percent).
Data from Hay Group's database of 4 million employees shows that as many as 20 percent are frustrated. The problem is costly.
According to Hay Group data, companies in the top quartile of engagement and enablement (the opposite of frustration) enjoy 4.5 greater revenue growth than companies in the bottom quartile; they experience a reduction in voluntary staff turnover by 54 percent.
Wilson's solution is to effect change in how employers approach the problem. Instead of seeking engagement, employers ought to focus on employees' energy. The concept is based on "brain science," he claims, and he illustrates it with 10 leadership principles.
One is “practice partnering, not parenting.”
The traditional form of leadership involves patronizing workers by assuming they have deficiencies that leaders must overcome — either by being the autocratic parent or by being an over accommodating (spoiling) parent.
Partnering, on the other hand, involves recognizing that two people are relative equals who stand together for each other's success. They're holding each other accountable.
Another principle is “trust conversations, not surveys.”
Most any manager doesn't mind when employees bring work home, but they have "massive problems" when workers bring home to work.
"Really good managers know how to have the engagement and energy conversations with their employees to rectify the tensions involved in being the supermom at home and the high performer at work," Wilson explains.
Really good employers "are completely integrating the family into the work experience." By his count, only two employers are really good at this: Google and Twitter. Most other companies are fearful that employees would take advantage.
Such cynical approaches to engagement suck the life, the energy, out of employees — and make necessary dialogues like the one Wilson is trying to start with his book.