Turning Around the Unwilling, Part 1

Our previous post dealt with the fact that many of our organizations are filled with people who would really rather be doing something else.  The numbers of people who feel that way in any organization rises and falls over time . . . and therein lies the problem and the solution.

In human relationships, we experience high points and low points, good times and not-so-good times and times when we’re idling in neutral. What allows us to keep those relationships healthy is a consistent, active mutual commitment to the other person(s) in the relationship that is best demonstrated when we aren’t experiencing a high point. When things temporarily go sour, we engage the other person(s) and talk it out. When things are in neutral, we continue to check in from time to time to make sure things are okay.

The same is true in our relationships to organizations: sometimes we’re in love, sometimes we can’t stand the sight of the place and sometimes it’s just a job and no big deal. The problem is that while it’s relatively easy to engage another person, it’s harder to engage an abstraction like “the organization,” particularly when “the organization” chooses to relate to its people in that way.

This is one of the fundamental flaws in an engagement survey: they’re sponsored by this impersonal entity called “the organization” and likely created by another organization whose members are faceless and unknowable. Hardly the kind of experience the average person would find personally validating.

It also explains why most of the free-form comments in engagement surveys tend to be whiny. We turn into whiny moaners when we feel powerless and slip into passive-aggressive mode. An engagement survey becomes the opportunity to vent frustrations to the faceless people who have power over you, allowing you to get some low-quality satisfaction by sticking it to them.

Another facet of an engagement survey that increases its impersonality lies in the design of the survey itself. The questions on an engagement survey reflect classifications that have been identified by the consultant in the consultant’s language. The themes in every engagement survey I’ve seen are always the same, even if a few customized questions are thrown into the mix. The message there is pretty clear: “the organization” only wants to “know” about certain things and not others. The organization cares less about what the individual employee thinks or feels and even less about the real problems that exist between the cracks of the engagement survey’s categories. The leaders have chosen to deal only with what they believe they can manage, and management is frequently about limiting those unpleasant uncontrollable variables that human beings have a tendency to generate.

Engagement surveys are useful for two things: collecting mass data about organizational programs and identifying conversation starters. The data may be ignored, twisted or taken seriously, depending on the quality of leadership in the organization. However, the conversations never really happen, even when results are shared at the work team level. And neither the survey itself nor the various forms of sharing engagement survey results ask the most important question you can ask a disengaged, demotivated employee.

“How are YOU doing?”

An engagement effort that fails to engage each employee on an individual basis is a half-hearted effort at best. A talent management program that fails to involve each individual in making choices about their skill levels, performance levels, career path and contribution is just another program.

Unless every individual in your organization matters, no one matters. This is the key to minimizing the ebbs and flows in employee engagement: people have to believe they matter and that their contribution matters. This is why leadership is so important: the organization’s top leaders must act in ways that reinforce the belief that each individual matters and the individual leaders have to personally and meaningfully engage their employees in conversations about work, about life and about how they’re doing.

In Part 2, we’ll go into more detail about how to make engagement surveys and programs more helpful and useful. We’ll also cover how we can capture what’s really going on in an organization and how leaders can make a meaningful difference.

Photo Credit: © Raphotography | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos


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Bob Mendonsa

Bob Mendonsa is an experienced, engaging facilitator with over twenty years of experience delivering and designing leadership and organizational development programs at all organizational levels in a wide range of industries. Bob’s body of work also includes significant experience in team building, human resources and assignments as the top HR/OD executive at three different companies.