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If So Many People Are Talking About Employee Engagement It MUST Be Valuable?

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How Has Employee Engagement (EE) Become So Popular And Why Are Companies Spending So Much Money? Is It A Fad?

by Robert Bacal

Employee engagement is probably NOT a fad, in the sense that it will "go away" and be forgotten, so let's get that out of the way. But why are companies spending so much on it? Why is everybody talking about it everywhere business is discussed?

Is it because it's powerful? Yielded huge results, and increased profits or the bottom line? In fact, none of these reasons describes the uptake of EE in the organizational world, but to understand WHY it's so popular, even in the absence of compelling data that confirm its value, you have to look at some Psychology, and some marketing and the history of the "engagement movement".

The driving forces that have pushed employee engagement into the forefront have nothing to do with its usefulness of soundness of concept, and everything to do with simplification, marketing and familiarity.

We Like Complex Things Made Simple

Our brains are actually set up to prefer simple explanations of things rather than more complex explanations of things. That's because our ability to process information is limited so "the brain" tries to reduce the amount and complexity of the information it receives.

The problem with companies using up resources on employee engagement is that they will NEVER know that it's not working, because employee engagement commitment is based on FAITH, not data. Companies do not, will not, and cannot properly evaluate success.

If you look at the "corporate stuff" that becomes popular -- The Myers-Briggs Inventory, Learning Styles and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs are good examples, you find a number of commonalities:

They "boil down" very complex issues into very simple categories that are easier to digest. Human behavior is often difficult to understand, and these "tools" provide us with ways of making complex things simple. Of course, one of the problems is that by simplifying complex things, we also lose a lot of information and detail AND it's easy to be mislead that our simple ways of looking at things are actually over-simplified and limited.

Gallup, and the research associated with linkages between employee engagement and business outcomes, categorize people on the basis of three categories:

  • Engaged
  • Unengaged
  • Actively disengaged

Nothing can be simpler than these three categories. Do they capture the complexity of human performance and motivation? Of course not. However, that simplification to something anybody can "understand" is the main appeal of the concept. We love categories, whether it's personality types, or astrology.

The Veneer And Attractiveness Of Science (And Numbers)

We have a tendency to put a great deal of faith in science, and by extension, numbers despite the fact that most people do not understand how scientific research works, and even its purpose. One thing held in common by personality profiles, learning style assessments, and Maslow's hierarchy of needs is that they all "sound like science" to people not trained in research. That is also true of employee engagement. People don't read the actual research, and aren't equipped to evaluate it critically, because they lack the skills. However, they accept things presented as scientific findings that they read about in the common press.

Marketing And The "Gallup Reputation"

Gallup, the popularizer of the "employment engagement" concept is a long standing, well respected, trusted and high visibility organization. Few people in the USA have not heard of them. That helped establish credibility of the concept early on, despite the fact that the actual term was used prior to Gallup getting involved. Before Gallup, nobody had heard of employee engagement, which speaks to the power of their reputation and marketing. And market they do, something held in common with both the Myers-Briggs, and learning styles companies. It's worthwhile for Gallup to invest in marketing on a large scale, because when you sell instruments to measure something, the actual profit margins become huge. Again, there are similarities with the Myers-Briggs, and the DISC. The investment is up front to develop the instruments, and then profit and sales are pure gravy.

What Is Repeated Becomes "True" And "Useful" - Familiarity Breeds Belief

If the Internet did not exist, it's likely that employee engagement would never have achieved the depth of penetration and popularity it has achieved, because it would have been impossible to create enough familiarity for it to be adopted on faith.
In today's connected, Internet world, it's often the case that what becomes repeated becomes accepted -- it's possible to establish something as true or useful simply by managing to get it talked about by enough people. There's a psychological basis for this phenomenon. Familiarity often breeds credibility, and that's the case with employee engagement. It's almost impossible to see discussions about the workplace that do NOT mention engagement, and the term engagement has insinuated itself into our popular lexicon, whether it's about employee engagement, customer engagement, website engagement, marketing, etc. It's all around us, so we start to believe in it.

Advertisers and marketers know that simple exposure brings credibility and that's why we see the same commercials n television over and over. The cumulative effect is to establish the brand foremost in the minds of potential customers.

There is no question that today's business decision makers probably don't go a single day without hearing something about employee engagement, and that's one reason why employee engagement will not fade away. It's not a fad, but this has little to do with its usefulness, and much more to do with the repetition of the concept in both business circles and everyday life.

Conclusion On The Popularity of Employee Engagement

None of these factors speak to whether thinking in terms of employee engagement has any value whatsoever for companies looking to improve their business performance, and that's the scary part.  The acceptance of employee engagement as important and useful stems much more from effective marketing, the ability to simplify complex human behavior so that it's easy to understand, and repetition and familiarity.

In fact just like learning styles. The research doesn't support the usefulness of matching instruction to learning styles, yet everyone believes doing so is important. We know that Maslow's theory of motivation - his hierarchy of needs, is just plain wrong, because people don't operate on the basis of a one at a time motivation arranged in a hierarchy of needs.

Yet both have insinuated themselves into our lives, just as employee engagement has. People believe in all kinds of things that are incorrect or not useful. The major problem though with employee engagement has to do with the money - resources and energy, companies are pouring into employee engagement initiatives that could be used much more directly to alter their work environments.

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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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