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How Employee Engagement Attempts Backfire And Have The Opposite Effect

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Why Employee Engagement Efforts Return Zero Results Or Worse

by Robert Bacal

Unfortunately, efforts to improve employee engagement can easily backfire, either ending up, on balance, with a few people improving, many people staying the same, and some people actually getting less engaged. Or, worse, employee engagement attempts can backfire.

How can this be? Once you understand the Psychology of the thing, it actually is quite straightforward and simple.

Effects Of An Organizational Action Depend On Whether Employees See It As Manipulative Or Not

We know from tons of research on the effects of rewards that it's the perception about the reward that's important, and not the size or value of the reward that counts. Recipients of rewards weigh the INTENTION OF THE REWARD PROVIDER, and then act in very rational and predictable ways.

If the perception is that the reward is given to manipulate the employee into "working harder", then the reward is discounted, and has very little positive impact, or even a negative impact on performance.

If the perception is that the reward is given "just because", without ulterior motive, then the reward has a much bigger effect on the employee's positive feelings and behavior.

Extending This To Employee Engagement Initiatives

We can extend this psychological finding to other things too, and in particular to attempts by the employer to improve engagement. Even if the actions the employer takes are actually beneficial to employees, if employees see the program as an attempt to squeeze out more work from them for the same compensation, then they will rebel, resist and in fact, their motivations to perform may drop.

Nobody wants to be manipulated.

Sadly, Employee Engagement Initiatives Are Motivated By Getting More Out Of Employees

Unfortunately, EE attempts ARE about leveraging employee engagement to get more from employees so they will add more to the bottom line, This is absolutely clear from reading all of the research, including the work from major companies that focus and sell their EE procedures by claiming their use will improve bottom line business performance.

While it may be the EE attempts DO make the workplace a better place for employees, employees aren't stupid. They know that the company isn't spending money on EE out of the goodness of the heart, but to squeeze out more effort. EE isn't about doing the right thing, although it may be the right thing. It's about making more money, or creating business results FOR THE COMPANY.

The Result: You Can't Bullshit The Employees, But EE Ends Up Trying

It's impossible to prove to employees that attempts to increase their engagement are solely for their own good. As a result you will get some unknown proportion of people who will simply ignore the whole thing, with another proportion buying in, and yet another proportion getting upset at being manipulated.

Ultimately, employee engagement attempts ARE a manipulation to get more work out of employees. That's why these initiatives can backfire and actually have the opposite to the intended results, OR end up with everything being a wash, so that on average, EE scores don't move no matter what is done!

About Company

Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992. Since then Robert has trained thousands of employees to deal with angry, hostile, abusive and potentially violent customers. He has authored over 20 books on various subjects, many published by McGraw-Hill.


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