It’s been a while since my last post on employee engagement. It seems to be a topic that gets me a little cranky. So it was some-what amusing when I was asked to participate in a panel at the World PR Forum in an IABC track on employee engagement and change.  Always up for being the contrarian on a panel. Except as it turned out we were all in agreement really. Violent agreement.

Employee engagement has NOTHING to do with employees. It’s all about management capability

To try and try and improve “employee engagement” during change is JUST WRONG.

Actually, I said “morally reprehensible”.

Here’s the gist of my presentation:

On employee engagement and change

In a stable state continuously talking about employee engagement is doing us no favours. If the quest is better organisational performance – revenue, innovation, sustainability, employee health and well-being then by focusing on employees’ engagement we are focusing on the wrong thing. It is no surprise that successive global surveys point to widespread “disengaged” employees. Over the course of 20 years employee engagement has consistently defined as the employees willingness to go the extra mile and expend extra effort. It may have been sanitized in some surveys, and newer lens have transpired – brand advocacy for example, but the bottom line the quest is how can I get my employee to do more for less.

In times of turbulent change, I might suggest it is morally reprehensible to be expecting the majority of your workforce to be doing more for less and giving of their discretionary effort. Stable state or turbulent times, if you change your focus to improving management capability and supporting managers you will automatically get higher revenue, more innovation, better employee health and well being outcomes.

Simply put, stop focusing on employees and put your lens on your managers. People do not leave organisations, they leave managers. If you need the majority of your employees to be putting in discretionary effort, then there is something askew with your strategy, your structure and operating principles.

On why Australia has such low employee engagement numbers

Australia is indeed the lucky country – sun, surf, and universal health care, a reasonably large welfare state. Good coffee, beautiful produce.

So why would Australia have the lowest employee engagement score of all the developed nations? According to the latest Towers Watson Study on Employee Engagement, only 28% of Australian’s employees are highly engaged. That’s 72% who are not. And further to that, Australian workers scored lower than the global average on nine out of 10 detailed engagement questions

Here are some thoughts.

1)    I think we can look to the Australian political and culture fabric to understand a cynicism to employee engagement. Australia’s work culture has deep roots in the labour party and the mantra of a ‘Fair Day’s Pay for a Fair Day’s work.  It could be argued that many Australian’s simply see the extra mile argument as unfair. And there is a lot of sun and surf to distract you from the job at hand..  At a world forum we have an excellent opportunity to explore whether national culture characteristics influence our propensity to go the extra mile and scrutinise our employee engagement activities on the grounds of equity.

2)   In support of my hypothesis about management capability and resourcing, it was 1995 when the Karpin report came out (Enterprising Nation). This was a significant report in to the state of management capability and skills in Australia. It found that we weren’t that flash and there were a number of recommendations about how to improve management skill and capability via education, industry and government initiatives. The bottom line was “Good management is key to competitive performance”

The delegates at the Workplaces of the Future Forum II, last December, represented companies, the public service, unions, government, academia, employer organisations and consultants seemed to concur that not much had changed in 17 years.

 On what Australian organisations are doing in terms of “best practice” employee engagement

I was asked to comment on what Australian organisations are doing to increase employee engagement at the moment. The cynical response is they conduct their employee engagement surveys very close to team building / coaching interventions. It creates a very useful spike.

However, in the spirit of constructive sharing, those organisations that are focusing on employee satisfaction and well-being are being brave and investing in training and development, and pursuing increased flexible work practice.  – We are the sandwich generation and need time off to care for parents and children

As strategies focus more on “customer centricity”  – They are also redefining employee engagement as brand advocacy and empowering employees to be spokespeople.  They are opening up the firewalls and allowing their employees to do more with social media and be brand advocates – this lowers hierarchy between managers and employees and permits more innovation in open dialogue in a hyper connected environment.

On how to keep employees engaged when stressed about job loss.

The short answer to this one is “with great difficulty”. It gets back to the issue of is it right to do so, or are we asking how to help employees through turbulent change. The companies that are doing it well are focusing on building change capability by addressing resilience and adaptability. They also use a communication approach that priveledges dialogue over continuous information (one-way). And at the base of it all is empathy, compassion, and again, equitity.

With  this question we come full circle

Australian employees are more pessimistic about job security and their future financial wellbeing than peers in recessionary countries according to new Towers Watson research. Results from its latest Global Workforce Study (GWS) shows that more than half of Australian employees (56 per cent) are worried about their future financial state compared to developed recessionary countries such as the UK and France at 46 per cent.

I would say this says more about manager’s ability to manage change, and manage their people through change than it does the employee mindset. If you do not have some one leading you through change, you will feel pessimistic and disengaged.


Your thoughts? Join me in violent agreement or share a different perspective…





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