Employee Engagement and Workplace Nirvana

Posted on October 22, 2009

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There have been some interesting tidbits over the past few weeks on employee engagement. I’d like to tie a few of them together here in this post.

Just this week I came across an opinion piece by Brad Hall that was posted on TheStreet.com on October 1. Hall argues against the idea that “engaging” employees leads to strong business results. He writes:

We’ve got a fundamental premise wrong. We believe that making employees satisfied will make them successful. That’s not true. In fact, the relationship is reversed — make people successful and they will be happy. Employees, at least those you want to keep, don’t want to be indulged, they want to be successful.

Imagine that you are sitting in a room with 10 sales reps, none of whom are making quota. Feel the mood of the room. How can you change it?

You can try to make them happy … maybe a company bowling night. Or, you can help them make quota. Which will have the biggest impact on job satisfaction? Causality flows from success to satisfaction. We’ve got it backward.

In other words, concentrate on providing employees with the tools to make them top performers in their jobs and don’t worry about whether they’re “happy.” Satisfaction will flow from solid performance – if you don’t have solid performance, then traditional sorts of employee engagement initiatives will likely not have the desired effect.

But company culture is important, right? Well, according to a recent survey, it depends on whom you ask. The survey, conducted by staffing firm Spherion, found that employers believe that culture and work environment are two of the top reasons employees choose to stay at a company. Employees, however, cite benefits, compensation, and career growth opportunities as the top three reasons for sticking with an employer.

My friend, Philadelphia-based corporate communications consultant Fran Melmed, resolves the disconnect this way on her blog:

During tough times, employees focus on the bare necessities and can get squeamish. They need money to pay their bills and they definitely need health insurance to CYA. For a spell, they’re willing to overlook the lousy decision making and poor communication . . . But I’m sorry. If your climate, supervisor relationships, and work environment aren’t clicking, they’re still walking—eventually. Who hasn’t witnessed—with envy—someone leaving for a great sign-on bonus and huge pay increase only to return because the culture was lethal?

Fran’s point is well taken, but, really, the key question is what we mean by “culture.” Does culture mean, to paraphrase another part of Fran’s post, that the company cares about your daughter’s birthday or the fact that your mom is in the hospital? Or, rather, do we mean by “culture” that the company allows its employees to realize their full professional potential. Let’s go back for a moment to the piece by Brad Hall:

Several years ago I asked a friend who joined Merck as a research scientist if he chose Merck because of its laser eye surgery benefit. He said, “Do we have that?” I asked him about other Merck benefits reported in Fortune to which he seemed equally unfamiliar.

Then I asked, “So, why did you join?” His eyes sparkled as he talked about Merck’s research culture and how he could become a renowned scientist. My friend wanted to be successful. Make him successful and he will be happy.

So which definition of “culture” should we concern ourselves with? Ideally, it should integrate both aspects – creating an environment where professional excellence is encouraged and individuals have real opportunities to grow and develop, while, at the same time, is warm, caring and respectful of the fact that life exists outside the workplace. Oh, and don’t forget to include great pay and fantastic benefits. And, of course, doing work that really makes a difference in the world. I mean, that’s not too much to ask for, right?