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Viagra for the Chief Horse Whisperer

By Frederik Anseel, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Vice Dean Research at King’s Business School 

How can employees make all the difference to organisational success? It is the holy grail of HRM and this holy grail is being called 'engagement' for over ten years now. Engagement, or commitment as some like to call it, is the Viagra of people management. It is that extra boost that turns a struggling company into a top company. You can take that Viagra effect quite literally. A clever scientific study investigated how the engagement of employees influences customer satisfaction. This effect is expressed statistically in the form of a correlation, which allows the comparison of the strength of the effect with other findings in scientific literature, for example with the strength of drugs. Well, allow me to quote the final conclusion of that clever study literally: ‘the correlation between male consumption of Viagra and sexual performance has been calculated to be r = .38, which is similar (r = .42) to the relationship between employee commitment and subsequent 1-year customer satisfaction’. Yes, you’ve read that correctly, engagement is the blue pill for top performance outside of the bed. So, do not hesitate any longer, let’s all take the pill.

If only it was that simple. Because there is no blue pill that as a company you can distribute as easily. We do not even know what engagement is exactly. Is it 'vigour', an infectious and passionate dedication to jump right in? Or is it ‘involvement’ rather, an almost cult-like committed identification with the company? We just don’t know. There is a Babylonian confusion of tongues, both in business and in the scientific world. So many types of engagement, so many measures.

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However, the fundamental problem is not the measurement of engagement. No, it’s the games we play with it. I'm raising the red flag here for those practices that are aimed at artificially driving up employees' engagement. An entire engagement industry has emerged, an industry of speakers, consultants and scientists who advise companies on how they can foster employee engagement. And I’m guilty for taking part in it as well. Every week, I receive requests in my mailbox for tips-and-tricks to improve engagement. And I’ll happily send scientific papers, or I’ll come over and personally speak at the company about how your leaders can listen better, how you can encourage people to craft their jobs, how you should organise moments to bring everyone together, or how a whole series of psychological interventions are at your disposal to make the motivational fire flare up. That’s what we as academics are expected to provide: some sort of a cook-book recipe with 5 easy steps to increase engagement. A toolbox.

But I’m out. I am no longer playing along. Because it is just that: tips-and-tricks, nothing more. There is no genuine concern for the well-being of people. Instead, companies are using the well-being of people, their mental health, merely as a tactical instrument, as a trick to make them produce more and perform better. The manager becomes a horse whisperer, a dog trainer, who with the right tricks and gestures makes the horse jump over the fence and the dog through the hoop. At the same time that companies are restructuring and cutting costs, they are shamelessly sending their employees on a mindfulness training to “become more resilient under stress”.

I’m calling for reflection in the engagement industry. How authentic is the concern for employee well-being in your company? I’m not singling out the managers here. They are often made part of a game that is not theirs. They are being made accountable for the engagement levels in their teams. The mental well-being of your employees as a target to attain at the end of the year, who came up with that? A survey, an excel formula and hey presto, those who get a score of 65% or more in their team on the annual engagement survey receive a bonus.

You are playing with fire. The desperate leader sees no other solution than to resort to the arsenal of engagement tricks. Or, what else can they do? Should they turn to the most cynical solution instead, thinking: “Sometimes the best way to deal with morale problems, is just to fire all of the unhappy people"? There must be another way. How? That is food for the next article. Stay tuned!

 

 

This article has been amended and translated to English. Read the original article (in Dutch) on De Tijd.

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