Why Employee Engagement is Mostly Bullshit

by | Oct 24, 2017 | Office Life, UX Careers | 0 comments

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

I’ve lost track of the number of jobs I’ve had over my lifetime. If I could sit down and count them all, it could easily be more than fifty — I’m not exactly sure. But, I’d wager I have had a job for each year of my life on this planet. I’ve had less recently than earlier in my life when I tended to be a bit more, shall we say, “exploratory.”

A lot of the positions I have held were blue-collar jobs – waiting tables, driving a limo, tending bar etc. Those were years where I tended to bounce around a little more. White-collar work has been more stable for me…or maybe I’ve been more stable. But when I sit down and contemplate the meaning of work, there isn’t too much difference between the blue collar work and the white collar work. There are obvious physical differences along with the skills needed for each type of work. But in terms of meaning, it is still forty plus hours each week with only a change in the scenery and environment. There were still jobs where I felt I was “punching the clock” and given that our lives often revolve around our work, I found this is a bit disheartening.

This “Punching the Clock Syndrome” is pervasive across our culture. The great majority of us see our work as a necessary element to provide the basic needs we have for survival on the planet. Eighty percent of us do not even enjoy our work according to one study and another study cites only thirteen percent of us actually enjoy what we do. We show up and put our hours in, but would we do it if we had to? Are we passionate about our work? Is your job something you would do for free or in your free time? According to the studies, most of us would answer “no” to all of these questions.

Perhaps not every minute or second of our work will be something we love or feel passionate about. There are the mundane aspects of any sort of work. But, would you say you enjoy doing what you do to make a living for the most part — say, 70–80 percent of the time? For most of us, saying yes to this question revolves around a simple concept: Feeling as though our work makes an impact that aligns with our core values. In other words, do you feel what you do for 40+ hours per week makes a difference — a difference you value? For me, the question always plaguing my heart and very existence is: What impact will my life’s work have when I am no longer here?

There is something of a comedic – even satirical – aspect to this issue of meaning and meaninglessness in work. It is underscored in the movie, Office Space.

Peter Gibbons: The thing is, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.
Bob Porter: Don’t… don’t care?
Peter Gibbons: It’s a problem of motivation, all right? Now if I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don’t see another dime, so where’s the motivation? And here’s something else, Bob: I have eight different bosses right now.
Bob Slydell: I beg your pardon?
Peter Gibbons: Eight bosses.
Bob Slydell: Eight?
Peter Gibbons: Eight, Bob. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.

~Office Space

The above quote is one of my favorite scenes in a movie of all time. Perhaps we find this movie so humorous because it is so painfully honest. If you work in an office and haven’t seen it yet, it is worth the rental fee. You’ll find it bears a striking resemblance to the satirical nature of real office work. It also aptly communicates the problematic aspects of work I have reflected on in past positions.

Given we spend so much of our lives devoted to our careers and work, it is disheartening to discover eighty percent or more of us do not even enjoy our work. This widespread lack of happiness suggests the existence of a major failure in how we approach work as a culture and as a species.

Let’s consider this concept from the worse case scenario: If 80–90 percent of the workforce reports being unhappy in their current careers, the result at best is an apathetic workforce devoid of any passion for their daily tasks. Essentially, we have millions of workers not too much unlike Peter Gibbons from Office Space who lack motivation and “just don’t care.” A situation like this undoubtedly leads to lower profits and bottom lines for businesses where people “work just hard enough not to get fired.” In the words of Peter Gibbons, we have to ask: Where’s the motivation?

There has been a lot of discussion of late around employee engagement. But, I think most discussions or articles miss the mark. Do a quick Google search on employee engagement. You’ll find articles discussing how some companies (like Southwest) make work fun and “zany.” You’ll find other articles discussing employee perks such as snacks, beer taps after certain hours, pool tables and foosball in the office. Some articles discuss how companies will pay their employees a stipend to take a free vacation each year to “recharge.” It’s all pretty nice. But, it is still extrinsic motivation. It’s superficial bullshit. And let me ask you: Would you flip burgers 8-hours per day just because McDonald’s put a foosball table in the break lounge and gave you a free meal each shift? You would still find that work meaningless.

To be fair, there were some articles that did get it right. Some articles delineated between the extrinsic versus intrinsic nature of employee engagement. The problem is largely the phrase “employee engagement” has become a buzzword where it almost ceases to have any real meaning because it has too many different meanings.

The funny thing about these articles on employee engagement was the majority of the writers just didn’t seem to get it. They don’t seem to understand employees don’t disengage from their work because there aren’t enough video games at the office or they don’t get free pudding at 2 pm each day. The problem isn’t that superficial.

Here at Walgreen’s, we have the foosball games, ping pong, snacks etc. But, before all of that came along, our HR department met with each of our groups to determine what our true pain points were. Interestingly enough, my group’s number one complaint was we didn’t feel we had a voice on major projects and features. We didn’t feel our input was valued. That is where HR started – not with free fruit each day.

Dan Pink’s book, Drive , explores motivation in the workplace and there is, perhaps, no better easily digestible analysis of this concept of what motivates an employee to work. One would assume we work for money and that is our prime motivator. You have to pay the bills, right? But as it turns out, salary will only get you so far. After all, there are many high paid workers in America who are not necessarily happy with their work.

Salary — whether it be your weekly pay, a bonus or some other form of compensation — is considered an extrinsic motivation. That is, it is an external method of motivation rather than an internal one. Assuming an employee is paid a living or fair wage, the satisfaction of receiving such compensation will not outlive a dearth of intrinsic benefits in a person’s work. That is, we require more than money to gain a sense fulfillment in our work. A donkey might chase a carrot on a stick forever. But, humans won’t.

This principle extends to the perks discussed in many of the employee engagement articles – services such as massage, free snacks, beer in the office fridge and the list goes on. While these might seem like a nice side benefit to working in an office, the novelty quickly fades. Once again, they are extrinsic…or “bullshit.”

This is largely known as an element of self-determination theory and Pink spends the first portion of his book outlining why extrinsic motivation such as salary, benefits and perks fail to fulfill and motivate us in our careers. So what does motivate us? Pink turns to intrinsic motivators to answer this question. He outlines three primary intrinsic motivators we need as humans — Autonomy, Purpose and Mastery.

Autonomy refers to the ability of an employee to feel as though they have control over the direction of their work and projects. This is in contrast to many organizations where micromanagement is often the model and employees are viewed as little more than cattle needing to be herded. Having autonomy means you control your destiny and direction. You have freedom to choose an approach to your projects and use your skills — the skills you were hired for — to complete your work.

Purpose simply refers to feeling that what you do matters or makes a difference on some level. One of the most meaningless jobs I ever had was working on an assembly line. It was monotonous, boring work — the same stuff every night or day I came in. It was so boring, in fact, I used what little seniority I had to get a job as a “spare operator.” This meant I would do a different job every night or most nights. Spare operators were simply there to fill in for absent employees (absenteeism is high in production work for obvious reasons). In a short while, I learned how to do every job in my department and became good at them in short order. This made me a commodity. I quickly realized I was needed. And in some sense, this gave me purpose and it felt good to know someone cared if I showed up. (The work was still pretty boring though and a chimpanzee probably could have done it better than most of us on that assembly line.)

Having purpose is largely about just knowing you make a difference in the workplace. Maybe your job doesn’t have you saving damsels in distress or rescuing babies from a burning building. But, you can still have purpose and feel as though you make a difference. Most employees need this at some level and it involves feeling respected, being noticed and receiving positive feedback for the work you complete. But it also involves feeling a sense of connectedness with your work, your team and something greater (a greater cause) than yourself.

Mastery is the final element Pink discusses and it involves professional development as well as growth — both personal and professional. Mostly, mastery refers to your ability to actually master your work. You clearly become adept at what you do instilling self-confidence and enjoyment in the knowledge you have reached a higher level in your professional growth. Getting to that point requires organizational support. In many traditional organizations, very little support is given to such an endeavor with management often concerned with their own growth more than that of their employees.

Pink uses a tripod analogy to discuss autonomy, mastery and purpose making the case that all three are needed to not only motivate employees, but also to give them a sense of satisfaction and overall meaning to their work. Each element is integral to this.

Pause here and think about a job you have had where you really hated it — one of those jobs where a pit grows in your stomach as you head to work on a Monday morning. What you’ll find you hated about this job is probably the lack of autonomy, mastery or purpose. Perhaps you felt powerless or that no one listened to you (even when you were the resident expert on the topic being discussed) — a lack of purpose. Maybe you had a boss who was constantly on your ass and breathing down your neck — no autonomy. Or maybe you just grew out of the position and couldn’t get promoted to the next level or work on more challenging projects — a lack of mastery.

We are really exploring two essential elements of work we desire as humans — meaning and enjoyment. Considering Pink’s analogy, it is impossible to separate these two elements because they essentially are tied with one another in synergistic fashion. You can’t have one without the other in most, if not all, cases. Meaning begets enjoyment and satisfaction while enjoyment is directly tied with how meaningful our work is to us.

In considering some of the best places I have worked, the single element tying them together is not that I felt I was doing something great (though occasionally I did feel that way), but rather We were doing something great together, as a team. This shift was more about how my work contributed to a team’s work and that work contributed to a greater good. My work in hospitals reflected this. My current positions reflects this – I really work with a great team.

A portion of my work in hospitals was academic and another portion was in a small community rural hospital in southern Indiana. The latter experience often put me face-to-face with patients who were terribly ill, scared and often confused. My work in that rural hospital involved supporting team research efforts to reduce readmission, supporting evidence-based practice and designing systems to deliver needed information to the front lines where it could improve medical interventions. The unique aspect of this work was my ability to see the impact we made on patients’ lives. Moreover, I felt like a valued member of a team with a greater goal than simply punching the clock and getting paid. In that position, I had autonomy, mastery and purpose. I wasn’t paid very well at all. But it was rewarding work.

I have written about my work in healthcare before. The reason I have stayed healthcare so long is because there is meaning in it.

My work in academics was similar. There are still academic papers I co-wrote with my name on them that are cited often in the medical literature. I worked on seemingly simple studies — systems to induce hand washing and reduce hospital acquired infections, for example. Something so simple as a doctor or nurse properly sanitizing their hands can (and I am sure did) save lives. Each day, I knew what I was working on touched lives and I was able to connect to something greater than myself. I still believe I made a difference in that position.

For me, the most important aspect of Pink’s tripod analogy is purpose. If I feel I am making a contribution and my contributions are valued, I can often forgo some aspects of autonomy and mastery. I do, however, believe you have to have some autonomy and mastery and a position that offers imbalance in the three elements will eventually wear an employee down. There is, as Pink contends, the need for a healthy balance between all of these elements. This is what Peter Gibbons was missing in his position.

One could think of these elements as the basic “recipe” to keeping an employee content. But, will they fuel passion? Will these elements keep you working until midnight? I suppose this depends on a variety of factors — many of which are personality traits coupled with whether an employee is truly doing something they love. If an employee doesn’t enjoy the basic aspects of their work (i.e. a lawyer who hates practicing law), autonomy, mastery and purpose won’t help much. You have to do what you love or find a way to love what you do.

If you have found yourself in a soul-sucking position (and we have all been there), some of what is herein might be of help. You have to have the basic recipe in the workplace to be happy or at least content. If you don’t have autonomy, mastery or any purpose in what you are doing for 40+ hours per week with no hope of ever securing these elements, it might be time to move on or at least think about it.

If employee engagement is approached from an initial perspective of how employees feel about their work and if they are finding meaning in what they do, then it isn’t bullshit. But if it is approached from the perspective of handing out free snacks and ice cream socials, it is.

Ultimately, the fringe benefits, the foosball tables, the video games and snacks will quickly become a novelty. They won’t change much of how you see your daily work or how you feel about it. But, if you enjoy your position and have the autonomy, mastery and purpose you seek, then these become nice-to-have items in the office.

I could probably go on and on with this, but it’s time to get back to some real work. I have a foosball game scheduled in 10 minutes, a ping pong tournament following the game and an ice cream social after that.