An alternative view on employee engagement | Opinion

By Mike Cook
Courtesy to The Bellingham Business Journal 

I live in Anacortes. Ours is a town where the ferries leave for the San Juan Islands and Victoria, British Columbia. The city is situated on Fidalgo Island, and since it isn’t very large (40 square miles), it is fairly easy to find your way around.

One thing that does give visitors and even many of the locals a geographic challenge is keeping straight the names and locations of the island’s eight fresh water lakes, one of which is Heart Lake, known to be a fine place to catch bass.

If you travel south from 41st Street on O Avenue, you’ll find yourself heading to the outer rim of the island. Along the way you’ll pass a hand lettered sign nailed on a telephone pole that my wife and I have dubbed our universal phrase for information that tells you something, but not quite enough to be truly useful.

The sign says: “This is not the road to Heart Lake.”

So now we know. O Avenue is not the way to Heart Lake. If we were looking for Heart Lake, this information would let us know it is time to stop heading this way. If we were not looking for Heart Lake, we can make note for the future.

What we obviously don’t know now is how to find our way to Heart Lake.

My wife and I now use the phrase—“This is not the way to Heart Lake”—as shorthand for letting each other know when what one of us has communicated to the other does not contain sufficient information to be useful.

“This is not the way to Heart Lake” is how I feel about most of the information gathered about the lingering and apparently low rates of employee engagement across North America.

The published studies tell me something, but not enough to find what I am looking for.

Gallup, the birthplace of employee engagement understanding, just recently issued its 2013 report on employee engagement, and without cracking it open (or any of the reports for the past 10 years) you can know this: Employee engagement remains at seemingly low levels.

So what do we know for sure?

Well, studies have shown that companies that register higher rates of employee engagement also register higher profitability and higher earnings. It doesn’t take a great deal of interpretative ability to conclude that higher employee engagement seems to correlate with higher profits.

It’s certainly not a cause and effect. But that inference is pushed by those companies’ marketing services to improve levels of employee engagement.

Since for-profit companies are logically designed to seek higher levels of profitability, they would then likely be candidates for ideas and programs that would improve the levels of employee engagement. That is the way engagement initiatives have been sold to business leaders for over a decade: “Look business leaders, your employee engagement scores are low and we know companies with higher engagement levels have higher profitability, so of course you’ll want to emulate those companies and buy our engagement survey tools and follow up programming.”

And as recently as 2011, according to Bersin and Associates, employers were spending close to $750 million annually to improve their engagement scores, with projections for this amount to eventually reach $1.5 billion per year.

I guess, when it comes to employee engagement, the formula for success  goes something like: “If you’ve gotten virtually no change in engagement levels for more than 10 years by spending up to $750 million annually, you should be able to double that result by spending twice as much!”

Yeah, this is definitely not the road to Heart Lake. But it just might fit this definition of insanity taken from Alcoholics Anonymous: Doing the same thing over and over expecting a different outcome.

I realize this does not paint a very promising picture for employee engagement going forward. However, if we have been on the wrong road as it pertains to employee engagement, maybe we would do ourselves a favor by stopping what we’ve been doing, standing back and observing what happens naturally for a while.

Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. He publishes a weekly blog at


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