The Employee Engagement Fallacy: 4 Myths Busted

Jonathan Raymond

I’ve never met a manager who consciously intends to make their employees overwhelmed, stressed-out, and miserable. And yet, the data is clear. Most employees are disengaged and leave their job because of the way they feel about their boss.

Isn’t it strange that we look at that phenomenon and define the problem as a lack of employee engagement? It’s entirely backwards, and we’re at a pivot moment in the leadership industry where it can change. It’s time to let go of the Employee Engagement Fallacy.

The Employee Engagement Fallacy is the belief that the solution to employee engagement lies with employees. It doesn’t. It’s not that they’re not responsible for owning their role. It’s that employee engagement starts (or, most often, doesn’t) with managers — from junior team leaders up to the CEO. There are four false beliefs that make up the Fallacy, each one well past its expiration date.

Myth #1: “I can’t find good people.”
We meet good people all the time. We interview and hire them. We bring them onto our teams, excited and hopeful about the personal qualities and skills we’re confident that they will add.  And then something happens. What was it? How did this good person go from being an exciting new hire to a consistent source of frustration?

What’s probably true is that we didn’t invest in that good person when they arrived. We didn’t give them the training they needed, or challenge them on the behaviors we noticed that we wished they would change. We didn’t show them what the DNA of our business was through specific examples, so they could understand our company culture through first-hand experience. And, we didn’t hold them accountable in small increments along the way so they had boundaries around what needed to change and by when.

Myth #2: “Nobody cares as much as I do.”
It may be true that nobody cares about the things you care about as much as you do. But it’s not true—or fair, or helpful—to think that nobody cares as much as you. They care about different things, things that matter to them, things that inspire and move them. Your job is to get the things you care about and the things they care about to match up in a way where everybody wins.

What are the things that employees care about? What if, in the larger sense, they are the exact same things you care about: creative freedom, personal meaning, doing work they love, and making enough money to support their families? As we look across the manager/employee divide, it’s easy to see the other person as being made of different stuff than we are. They’re not. It’s your responsibility to discover just how much they care, in ways and about things that you don’t.

Myth #3: “I can’t afford to invest time in someone who is just going to leave anyway.”
Think about the person on your team who’s having the most trouble right now. Now add up all the times you’ve had to finish off their work that wasn’t quite there, or remind them about this, that, or the other thing. Make sure to include the nightly conversations you’re having with your spouse, the complaint sessions you’re having with your colleagues, and the amount of time you lie awake at night in utter frustration feeling like you’re out of options. How many extra hours did you spend with them over the past month? Ten? Twenty? Too many to count? How about over the course of the last year?

What if instead of that next 20 hours of supervision, you spend two in a series of short, direct conversations focused on how they’re showing up with less than their best, what standard you expect, and how you’re going to help them get there by giving them the gift of not accepting excuses. Talk about a win/win.

Myth #4: “We just need better systems and more communication.”
Systems, processes, action plans, and procedures are wonderful things. They are necessary to creating a minimum amount of order and predictability to your business. However, ask yourself: How many systems do you have right now? How many tools have you tried in the last five years with big promises as to what they were going to deliver only to see things backslide within days?

Systems are not the solution to people problems. They’re absolutely the answer to system problems, though! The key is to know the difference. When an athlete breaks their leg you put it in a cast to help restore structure and stability. However, to support them through the emotions of the fall and help them to get back up again, well you need a whole other kind of medicine. Top down culture tools and initiatives are the cast, necessary but insufficient to create the culture you want. Managers must do the rest.

The Manager Engagement Manifesto
Let’s make a new set of assumptions. We can call them the Manager Engagement Manifesto. They’re not the opposite of the myths we’ve hopefully just debunked, but a reframe that will help you and your fellow leaders transform your culture one conversation at a time:

  1. I can’t find good people” becomes “I can’t know yet who my A players are until I challenge them to find out.”
  2. “Nobody cares as much as I do” becomes “I haven’t figured out how they care in their own way that can harmonize with the way that I do.”
  3. “I can’t afford to invest time in someone who is just going to leave anyway” becomes “I don’t have time to do anything else.”
  4. “We just need better systems and more communication” becomes “We don’t need more communication. We need to start speaking a different language.”
You’ll find that simply talking about making this shift is an empowering act. You’ll have to follow through, but by letting go of the old story about employee engagement, you instantly remove blame and excuses from the system. You open up the conversation amongst leaders and managers about how much more power they have than they think to change the company culture, no matter where they are on the organizational chart. Watch them engage with that. R&E
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