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"Abra-Caddabra...Employee Engagement...Ta dah!"

Smoke and mirrors.  Aren’t those things we attribute to illusionists?  Tactics to hide or divert your attention somewhere else while a performer does something tricky to get you to think they’ve done something amazing.  Welcome to the new buzz phrase du jour and all its mystical solutions, “employee engagement.”

I may have just ticked off an entire group of illusionists/consultants who have the latest wiz-bang solution for getting employees engaged. (stick with me…)  A before/after survey can somewhat validate any initiative and yield a result differential.  I have to be fair.  I obviously can’t credibly make such a statement if I don’t know who/what/how and such is really being done.  Someone could have the best program and results in the world; I don’t have the information to make such bold statements.  This is true.  However, just as with statistics, we speak of norms; generalizations vs. exceptions.  The same way you bet your money at a casino…..probability.  Are you as judicious and understanding when it comes to spending your organization’s resources on this holy grail du jour, employee engagement?

I’m not at all devaluing employee engagement.  I absolutely recognize its value.  What I am critical of is how I believe in many cases, it is approached with a “less-than-as-effective-as-it-could-be” result.  Personally, I look at things like this with LCD glasses first.  That’s not ‘liquid crystal display’, but Least Common Denominator; taking you back to fundamental fractions vocabulary.  Basically, “What can this be boiled down to….what is foundational?  If ever I were to be a super hero,(if you’ve read enough other postings of “The Human System,” you’d likely agree) it would be Metaphor Man.  So let me don the cape and head down illustration alley.

Your goal: Build a muscle car (employee engagement). You put a supped up new engine in it, a snazzy custom paint job, a kickin’ Alpine stereo.  You start the engine….roars like a lion.  You crank the stereo up….shakes the neighborhood.  You step back as proud as you can be: one slick paint job…..about to hit the Friday night cruise scene (if that still happens)……….”Uh Oh.”  You look and realize, your car has no wheels.  As great as the stereo, engine, paint job may be….. just how “effective” is your muscle car?   


If you had the wheels and no engine, you would get further just pushing the car.  All of a sudden, the paint job and stereo really don’t matter as much, do they?  Resources, with the best of intentions, get spent in all kinds of surface appealing places, often leaving LCDs (like wheels) as assumptions.  Unfortunately, when it comes to many human capital management dynamics, the LCDs aren’t as obvious and apparent as the wheels on the car.

Making it real

Ok, to bring this analogy to reality.  I’m going to give employee engagement the simple definition of being the retention of a highly productive workforce.  (EE = R (retention) + P (productivity).  We could do an exercise which would break down retention and productivity into different components with many different variables.  Remember the LCD’s?  I’m going to cut through all the rest and just blurt it out:  The foundational LCD to effective employee engagement is the quality of your leadership and management team.  PERIOD.    I said foundational, not important.  There are many important things, but foundationally, if you don’t have a high quality leadership team of A-players, and embark on spending time/resources on employee engagement, you are in a “less than” outcome scenario; handicapped from day one.

Open for meaningful debate?  About every turnover/retention survey or study you ever see, the #1 correlation determining adherence or departure [(stay or go…..just wanted you to know I have bigger words in my arsenal I can use to impress with.  “Metaphor Man, big words can use.”  ß that’s what happens when Yoda critiques.  Hey, if I’m going to border on somewhat abrasive to some, overly cerebral to others, I can at least be light hearted and have some fun with it too.  Are you wondering yet just how long I can keep this parentheses thing going?  I know, you’re going to have to go back and re-read the whole sentence without this part now….Yes…I’m having fun.  By this point, you likely have one of these reactions:  A. you think I’m an idiot, B. you think I probably am fun, C. I’ve shot all credibility by not sticking with the overly cerebral stuff, D. what a waste of my time, E. all of the above, or F. a living super hero…I thought they were all make believe.  You see, human nature can boil things down to core responses and reactions which can be pseudo predictable.  Human nature.  You won’t beat it, so go with the flow of it….quit spending time/money/effort into anything else before you get the undisputed foundation solidified.)  OMG, not a bracket now…..for those who were looking for “G. a living genius” thank you, your check is in the mail.] is the relationship one has with their immediate supervisor.  Do you want the most productive people who stay with the organization?  FIRST make sure you have the best leadership/management teams possible.  My “C-3” LCDs for quality leaders: Competence (credible/valid knowledge and experience), Communication (open and honest), and Congruence (consistency).

If you haven’t done assessments on your leaders, formally or informally, do this first.  Figure out who you have, solidify the leadership/management first, then see where you stand before employee engagement initiatives are designed and undertaken.  You’ll spend less and get more from what you do spend, or both.

A PhD Organizational Psychologist I partner with, after many years of assessing thousands of leadership individuals they had these


seven key factors of leadership success emerge:

  • Strategic thinking abilities

  • Assertiveness

  • Proactive conflict orientation

  • Decisiveness

  • Conscientiousness

  • Goal setting

  • Task orientation


What is most meaningful is that there are validated, reliable testing assessments which are able to capture these characteristics and compare it to broad peer groups in similar job functional roles.  It blows behavioral interviewing out of the water.  The success stories are solid.  FYI, most of the quality assessments like this require you to have at least a master’s degree, typically in the social sciences, to have access to their instruments.  This maintains proper usage, administration, and interpretation of the tools.   You need to know what you are doing when using assessments for selection. 

Earlier I compared many employee engagement consultants and/or initiatives to illusionists.  Why?  Not because they all are or don’t create value, but to get people to stop and think.  In psychology there are several dynamics which yield pseudo results.  I say pseudo, not because they are false, but because they aren’t as correlative or have validity.  The stimulus doesn’t create a predictable response.   The Hawthorn effect is one where people’s behavior changes just because there was a stimulus change, not because of the change itself.  Really, you can get some cheap mileage from this….look it up.   The comparison wasn’t to diminish the value of anyone or the service they provide.  It is to know when/where/how to use them to get the highest return on your investment.  Make sure you have solid leadership teams first.  Otherwise, at some level, you are pouring water into a bucket with holes in it.


The main point:

Of the components of the individual “People Flow Continuum” (Recruitment, Selection, Training/Development, Motivation, Retention), recruiting is historically the least fun, the one not in the spotlight, and treated like a step-child function.  That has been changing, finally, and recognized.  However, making the distinction more specifically, leadership recruitment is the #1 most important thing in human capital management to get right the first time.  When you do, the rest of the story is able to flow, avoid the trolls on the bridge, and have a much greater probability of ending “happily ever after.”

Choose to make it a great day!



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