Engagement cultures. From Harvard Business Review to MBA curriculum to formal organizational psychology studies, increasing attention is being paid to the importance of establishing and maintaining a highly engaged workforce. And rightfully, so! But in many cases of practical application, the results fall far short of desired impacts, leading many to dismiss engagement as merely another HR program du jour.
Let’s set things straight…what engagement is and what it isn’t.
Popular perspectives too closely align an engaged workforce with one that is provided large and comprehensive benefits packages, complete with liberal paid time off balances, casual dress codes, 401k and pension offerings. Tuition reimbursement. Offices for every employee. Paid sabbatical periods. The list could go on and on….
Similarly, too many leaders understand engagement as the same things as “happy” or “satisfied,” which in turn prompts many to either simply pump out additional benefit programs or throw their hands up and declare their employees “too demanding.”
Clearly, benefits and satisfaction is a part of engagement. In fact, my ideal “engaged” workplace might personally include every one of those I mentioned. But it’s not the benefits themselves that creates an engaged organization.
The benefits provided to employees are instead symptomatic of the overall culture of the organization. They speak to the attitudes and value leadership holds with regard to their employees – the lifeblood of any organization. Take every benefit listed above and instill them into a company with traditional, task-oriented management, and what you will get is an entitlement culture in which every additional benefit quickly becomes one more wooden tile on a more precariously balanced Jenga tower. Eventually, the benefits will overwhelm all else and topple, pulling whatever remains of employee morale with it. Viewed in this way, benefits truly are mere line items in an organization’s operating costs, attempts to appease employees’ insatiable appetites for more “satisfaction.”
If, however, benefits are a reflection of the value with which leaders perceive employees, and when that reflection is aligned with the underlying values and philosophies for raising employees’ sense of ownership and pride in the mission of the organization and their own contributions to such, engagement begins to be impactful.
Engagement does not begin with benefits, but rather trust and empowerment, a sense of purpose that pervades all levels of employees (and leadership), and an culture of mutual reliance and mission. In fact, until you have those foundational aspects, don’t even bother turn to benefits programs as a lever for engagement. Engaged cultures build on honest respect, mutual trust, and profound purposefulness. Benefits are the icing on the cake, tasty and appealing to most palates, but not enough to sustain one’s appetite for long by themselves.