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Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Employee Engagement Is the Wrong Question

Employee engagement is the wrong question

October 15, 2020 | By Stacey Mason

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I never expected I’d write about employee engagement. Fundamentally, I dislike the discussion for one simple reason: I think it’s the wrong question to be asking the workforce.

Gallup, with extensive research dating back to the late 1990s, is regarded as the authority on the topic and created the Q12 survey. Figures show employee engagement percentages across three spectrums: actively disengaged, not engaged and engaged. The 2018 Gallup numbers came in at 13%, 52% and 35%, respectively.

I find that the numbers fluctuate only a couple of percentage points from year to year. So, for all the talk on the topic, not much changes.

From my perspective, here’s the miss. “I” am the fundamental equation in the question, and yet no one is asking me about “me.” Engagement surveys don’t inquire about personal well-being or my individual level of happiness.

Shouldn’t the individual be the primary conversation? I think so.

Generally speaking, engagement discussions tend to get lumped into a couple of buckets. All worthy conversations, but secondary ones.

The Role of the Organization

Engagement commentary overwhelmingly implies that the organization is at fault for poor results. Apparently, the organization must bear the burden. That seems unbalanced. Does the organization play a role? I believe it does. Is the role that it plays primary to a more engaged workforce? I believe it isn’t.

I want to see organizations excel in all the ways that matter to its particular workforce, but I find it unlikely that individual engagement will be solved by the collective actions of the entity. Engagement is an individual decision that I make or don’t make.

The Influence of Leadership

After pointing to organizational gaps, another common thread is the overarching statement of, “leaders hold the key to employee engagement.” I could go along with that statement if “leader” meant “self,” as in self-leader(ship). But that’s not what it means. The statement suggests that I’ve acquiesced control of my personal engagement to another party.

If I were genuinely happy, would I send in my vote by proxy? I don’t think I would.

The Financial Impact

Studies are quick to point out the negative financial impacts resulting from the nearly 70% of the workforce that is categorized as actively disengaged or not engaged, targeting front-line productivity to bottom-line profitability – and everything in between. Yet there is wealth beyond the P&L statement. There is untold wealth that happiness has the potential to create for mankind. The quest for individual happiness has far greater staying power. Organizations will continue to come and go over time, but humanity endures.

For me, in the end, what is missing is all this cacophonous conversation on employee engagement is the truest, deepest, most basic human question of all: Am I happy?

And please don’t dilute that question. It’s not am I happy at work, it’s not am I happy with my boss, it’s not am I happy with the vision of the organization, but – as a human being – am I happy with myself, am I happy with who I am, am I happy with the life that I lead. Happiness is the driver to a life that contains engagement.

Happiness begets engagement, not the other way around.

And maybe, just maybe, we’re starting to make progress on the happiness front. Greater numbers of people are embracing contemplative practices (mindfulness, meditation, centering) and creating simplified lives (less stuff, more experiences). There is a deep yearning to understand what truly brings joy and how that joy can be central to a life. I have to believe that once we get a real sense of what makes us happy, we gravitate toward work that matters, in organizations where we flourish, alongside people we are genuinely excited to see every day. Once I’ve made those decisions, then ask me if I’m engaged.

Actually no, don’t ask me that. Ask me if I’ve come alive. Because what we need is people who have come alive.

Happiness is an individual decision; a choice I make. And happiness begets engagement. Let’s get to the root of the discussion. What we need is for the human race to discover happiness.

Ancora Imparo… (Still I am learning)

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Matt WallerFounder of The Improv Lab, Stacey Mason has immersed herself in the field of Applied Improvisation for the last decade after co-founding several comedy improv troupes and training with various actor-teams including Second City in Chicago. Her corporate background includes nearly 20 years at Walmart in Logistics, Global Supply Chain and Merchandising/Replenishment before shifting towards culture coaching, stewarding the Walton Institute, Walmart’s flagship culture program. She partners with Walton College Executive Education on innovation programs and other initiatives