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The worst-kept secret: Employee Engagement programs don’t work?

I’ve talked to so many leaders in the last 18 months: CEOs, HR, Operations, Engineering, Sales… And I haven’t found a dissenting voice yet. There’s something about Employee Engagement programs that simply don’t work.

I wonder whether it has to do with their diagnostic nature. See, if I were to ask you to complete the following phrase: “Employee Engagement ______,” 9 out 10 would scream: “Surveys!” The issue with them is that most of the energy is spent wrestling wording into the ground, pushing the system to reflect your organizational reality, and chasing leaders to chase people (because we chase response rates). By the time results come in, between the anonymous nature of the responses and the generic characteristic of the questions themselves, the best we can get is some cross-cutting diagnosis and a few initiatives. More often than not, we get systemic cynicism.

Perhaps it’s the fact that these programs aren’t operational by nature. Engagement programs (even more so than any other people related process) feel like that thing we do, once or twice a year, that gets in the way of our job. It’s quite ironic when you think about it. The only thing we do as leaders is to work with people. It’s through teams of people that we get any results out the door. And yet, even the most people-centric among us, can’t fathom the contradictive nature of how they feel about their people, and how they do about Employee Engagement programs. These surveys seem so far removed from our day to day that carry the stigma of bureaucracy as opposed to something we’d gladly put in our toolbox.

Come to think of it, I question whether these programs have the right model of accountability to stand a chance even. It is ironic. On the customer side, we moved from a centralized, research-based model of focus groups and customer loyalty metrics, to empowering the front-lines. We went from market segmentation to the segment of one. We close the loop and move the needle one experience at the time. But when it comes to employees, we revert to the good old days, don’t we? We look at HR the same way we used to look at market research. We ask them for answers about our people. And they try and do what they can. But I honestly wonder whether there’s anything they can do at all.

The more I ponder, the more I realize Employee Engagement programs are dead on arrival. As long as we believe that because there’s an executive at the table that has the word Human in their title we should look at them when it comes to people matters, we stand no chance. We’ll keep creating initiatives, programs, benefits, presentations, read-back sessions, working groups, workshops, and every other wheel-turning busy-work we can find so we can get to the next pulse survey and hit the reset button.

I’m convinced. We either become people experts, or we are, as leaders, dead in the water. When it comes to Employee Engagement, I’m more on Patrick Lencioni’s camp: more than something you measure, it’s something you manage for. And as such, the current incarnation of measurement tools are flawed, and the centralized programs we keep investing in are ineffective.

As for myself, I’m starting to like Employee Success much more than the status quo. The notion that our job as leaders is to make our people successful is simple and powerful. It’s the opposite of anonymous and segmented. It is 100% personalized. And, more importantly, it’s operational.

What do you think?




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Juan Dellarroquelle

Juan Dellarroquelle

Founder @ Blueprint

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