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Why all talk of employee engagement is just bull

LiveMint logoLiveMint 03-06-2014 G. Sampath

Work is central to our lives. For many, it not only defines who they are, but is also the source of meaning or purpose in their lives. Yet for many more, work tends to become a source of discontent, an open wound bleeding toxicity into other spheres of their life. There is hardly a workplace around that does not have employees who keep cribbing about their job.

You do not need a research study to figure out why masses of otherwise sane, healthy, productive individuals who begin by enthusiastically seeking fulfillment in work end up, over a period of time, as inveterate whiners or cynical clock-watchers who put in only the barest minimum they can get away with, as opposed to putting their life and soul into their jobs.

The well-known pollster Gallup conducts periodic employee engagement surveys. Its latest report, though restricted to American workplaces, has confirmed what other similar surveys have established as a worldwide trend: employee engagement is on a downswing. Human resources (HR) experts and managements the world over are apparently mystified that the average employee’s commitment to the company’s profits is not as exemplary as that of the chairman-cum-managing director’s.

So, if the vast majority of even the winners (read: full-time employees) in this ultimate flowering of human civilization—the liberal capitalist society— are so unhappy with their work that they find it a soul-battering experience, does it mean that there is something wrong with the society we have built for ourselves, or is there something wrong with our expectations as human beings?

In a recent article in the New York Times titled Why you hate work, Tony Schwartz, a management consultant, and Christine Porath, a B-school academic, attempt to find answers to the epidemic of employee disengagement. Among the factors they cite as causes behind this workplace malady was lack of regular time for creative or strategic thinking, not being allowed to focus on one thing at a time, and a lack of opportunities to do what is most enjoyed.

But when it came to the cure, they had nothing but bland platitudes to offer—shorter meetings, relaxed expectations when it comes to responding to email—none too surprising a failure given the necessity of having to operate within the paradigm of business management while pretending to be objectively concerned about human fulfillment.

So they end up peddling banalities such as the following: “In a numbers-driven world, the most compelling argument for change is the growing evidence that meeting the needs of employees fuels their productivity, loyalty and performance.” Well, if all that was needed to improve employee engagement was for rational managements to make rational economic decisions based on pure numbers, then managements should have had no problem giving workers a slightly better deal in a scenario where the average CEO makes 331 times the average employee.

But for some strange reason, managements generally tend not to act rationally in these matters. On the contrary, they tend to become paranoid and suspicious when employees come together to ask for the same things that management experts suggest could boost the company’s performance by boosting employee engagement.

Incidentally, Schwartz and Porath suggest taking care of the workers’ physical needs through wellness programmes, giving them more frequent breaks, high-quality food at subsidized prices, among other simple measures that don’t cost much. But 148 workers of Maruti Suzuki India Ltd’s plant in Manesar are still in jail for demanding much the same things.

More recently, a woman worker from a factory in Delhi was fired for supporting a colleague who was demanding the same things . Rakhi Sonkar, 31, was a single mother of three children aged 10, eight and six, and the sole bread-winner of the family. With her source of livelihood gone, she ended up committed suicide in front of the factory gate. How does one quantify, and translate into numbers, the human cost of the managerial decision to fire this woman from her job? Is it possible that her suicide may have impacted the engagement levels of the rest of the workers?

Management theory defines employment engagement as “the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals.” But then, as subjects of study or contemplation, notions such as meaning, purpose, identity, and emotional commitment fall in the realm of the social—as opposed to the realm of the economic or the natural. They are subject neither to the theoretical models of economics nor to the natural laws of the physical sciences. Yet this has not prevented management studies, a discipline with scientific pretensions, from appropriating them for its own purposes, with some help from industrial and social psychology.

Funnily enough, the intellectual bad faith of such an academic endeavour, and especially of a concept such as employee engagement, which forecloses any possibility of examining the social realm as potential causes of disengagement, was thoroughly exposed by some of the readers’ comments below Schawartz and Porath’s article. Just two of these offer a greater insight into employee disengagement than what the entire article manages to do.

First, a commenter named Nostranditmas recalls: “My father was hired as a consultant to a bank that wanted to stem the notoriously high turnover rate among tellers… they had tried everything—everything that is, except giving them a raise. When my father ventured this as a suggestion, he was shown the door. Nothing’s changed.”

Writes another commenter, a Dr Outreamour: “Not mentioned in the article is the anxiety of knowing you can be laid off at any instant. We come into work each day aware that we may be called into the director’s office, read a dismissal statement prepared by the corporation’s lawyers, coerced into signing an agreement that our paltry severance package will be forfeited if we choose to fight the dismissal, and escorted (sometimes with security agents) out the door—all in less than an hour. Poof! Disappeared!”

How amazing is it that job insecurity and sub-optimal compensation rarely, if ever, figure in discussions on dwindling employee engagement? If management studies were truly a scientific discipline and not merely an ideological enterprise designed to normalize the pathological, the first thing it would have offered by way of a solution to the problem of decreasing employee engagement would be to recommend that workers’ compensation ought to rise, if not at the same pace, then at least at a fraction of the pace at which productivity and profits have been growing. But that it hasn’t been happening for a long time now , and that workers are more insecure in their jobs than ever before , are never considered as possible causes of employee disengagement.

Instead, in their learnt disquisition, Schwarz and Poroth present the fulfilment of four kinds of needs as fundamental to employee satisfaction: physical (opportunities to recharge at work), emotional (feeling valued), mental (opportunity to define their work to some extent), and spiritual (feeling connected to a higher purpose).

No doubt these are important needs of any employee. Not only is job satisfaction impossible without all of these being addressed, even an excellent salary package may not be able to make up for a failure to fulfil these human needs. And yet, most conspicuous by its absence in the list above is any mention of the financial need—despite it being the single biggest reason why employers and employees come together in the first place.

As it happens, the most popular remedy these days for poor employee engagement, a remedy highly recommended by accredited management experts—is better communication. Well, as the saying goes, money talks. And for employers who wish to communicate how highly they value their employees, there is no more powerful way of doing it than by putting their money where their vision statement is.

At the end of the day, nothing boosts employee morale better than a good raise; and there is no better way of telling an employee she is valued than by making a firm commitment to her long-term financial security.

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