Don't engage employees -- empower them

Apple Store employees in Switzerland
Flickr user dulnan

(MoneyWatch) The management fad of the millennium is employee "engagement." Gallup has done a remarkable job of marketing it as the one metric for improving everything from employee retention to business performance.

But does it work? Not necessarily.

Sure, every executive and business leader wants employees to care about their jobs and the success of their company. That's a no-brainer. But accurately measuring employee engagement, developing the right strategies to improve it, implementing them, and not screwing up anything else in the process is far easier said than done.

More importantly, at least one credible expert and a human capital analytics consultancy firm say the cause-and-effect relationship between employee engagement and business results isn't compelling, primarily because their drivers are not necessarily the same. And I happen to agree.

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If the results are questionable, then why have so many companies jumped on the employee engagement bandwagon? Like so many things nowadays, executives do it because it's popular, it sounds good and it sounds easy. Hire Gallup, have them do a survey, make a few tweaks and -- voila! -- instant engagement.

The truth is that companies do half-baked stuff like that all the time. I've seen it over and over. Half the time it backfires because they're not measuring the right factors, they don't make the right changes, or they fix one thing and screw up another.

Now, I know employee engagement is a phrase with a deeper meaning, but whenever I hear it, I can't help but relate it to domesticated animals. You engage a dog by getting it to do tricks in the hope of getting a treat. You engage a cat with a piece of string or, if you really want to go high-tech, a laser pointer.

I know it's a condescending analogy, but when you lump individuals into masses to be measured with tools and manipulated into doing what you want them to do, what can I say? It seems to fit. Maybe it works with certain employees. Maybe not. But there's one thing I do know: There are better ways to motivate employees and improve business performance.

I say that because, in the high-tech industry, where a high percentage of employees do knowledge-based work, what really motivates them is feeling empowered. In my experience, employees feel empowered when:

- Their responsibilities are clearly defined

- They're challenged, given the tools they need to succeed and are held accountable

- They feel their hard work is recognized

- They feel they're part of something that will make a difference

- They're compensated appropriately and have the opportunity to move up if they excel

- Things they should or need to know aren't kept from them

- Their management is at least as competent, capable and hardworking as they are.

In my experience, that's what empowers and motivates employees. And that's what translates into improved employee retention, effectiveness, productivity and business performance. Everyone benefits, from employees and managers to customers and shareholders. Everyone.

And here's the thing about empowerment. Once a company gives it by creating a culture where employees feel empowered, they can't easily take it away. That's precisely why it's so attractive and motivating for employees. It gives them a measure of control. And it pays off, big-time.

Engagement, on the other hand, is something that companies spoon-feed employees. It creates dependency and mediocrity. If that's what you or your company wants out of life, that's fine. Do that.

But if you're the kind of employee who aspires to do great things, who wants to get ahead, don't settle for engagement. Find a work environment where you feel empowered. And if you're the kind of executive or business leader who wants employees that outperform their peers, create a culture that empowers them.

Image courtesy of Flickr user dulnan