A Foosball Table isn’t the Hallmark of a Good Company Culture

There are no shortcuts to achieving an engaged and productive workforce.

When the business environment is strong, when the competition isn’t a major threat, and when productivity levels are acceptable, performance management problems are easy to address (or ignore). However, when stressors increase and the organization faces challenges, a sense of urgency develops because engagement issues like reduced productivity, decreased job satisfaction and increased absenteeism begin to appear. At this point the call to “improve employee engagement” is made by the management team, and they demand fast results. Thus begins the scramble for quick solutions and simple fixes.

The problem is that quick and simple are not cheap. Through her organizational effectiveness research at the University of Pennsylvania, Pam Teagarden, founder of Authentum, estimates that companies loose more than $300 billion a year in productivity due to misguided attempts to improve employee engagement.

Quick and simple doesn’t work, so avoid these common employee engagement traps:

1. Applying simple tools to complex problems

Too many smart people propose overly simplistic solutions to engagement issues. Saying “thank you” and smiling more often will make managers more polite, but good congeniality won’t spur long-term commitments from employees. Neither will free food, social opportunities, a relaxed dress code or a d@%# foosball table.

2. Believing ‘happy’ is the same as ‘engaged’

If you need proof that happiness and engagement are not the same, look no further than a workplace that pays high salaries, expects very little of employees and offers no oversight. For anyone who thinks “that sounds like the perfect job,” a friend who had worked in the Middle East under these circumstances warns: you’ve obviously never experienced the frustration of working hard while others don’t, and no one cares either way.

3. Trying to fix management issues with engagement solutions

It might be shocking, but engagement isn’t a supervisory responsibility. That’s because the manager’s role is secondary to factors that are likely out of her hands: the organizational structure and the corporate culture. Too often, management issues are confused with engagement issues. It’s impossible to engage employees when there are fundamental flaws to the organization’s design. Sean Williams, the immediate past chair of the employee communications section of Public Relations Society of America, suggests that companies should “get away from the concept of engagement being something separate when it’s part of good management.”

4. Expecting employees to tell you what they want

The readily available employee engagement tools only assess whether people are engaged. No matter how real-time or frequent the employee engagement surveys are, they all have the same problem: organizations and their workforce don’t speak the same language. Just like the patient describes his pain to the doctor and the physician determines what is wrong and how to remedy it, employee surveys are only a diagnosis that something is amiss. Your employees can’t write their own prescriptions.  

5. Surveying too much

Surveys themselves can create new problems or exacerbate existing issues. This is because the act of surveying employees conveys a promise from management that they recognize a problem and resolve to rectify it. Employees reasonably expect that the survey is a first step in the process of finding and fixing what isn’t working. If the information is gathered and no action is taken, management sends the message that it is either incompetent or didn’t care in the first place.

6. Compartmentalizing engagement

When engagement is a problem, often the human resources or communications departments are turned to for solutions. While the expertise might live there, the solution must involve everyone. It can’t be a case of leadership saying, “You fix our engagement problems and we’ll continue to do everything else the same.”

7. Creating an engagement model that only works under ideal circumstances

Engagement during the good times is relatively easy to achieve but hard to sustain. That’s because change is inevitable. Putting in place an engagement plan that does not account for personal and professional stress on the workforce is doomed to fail. “Engagement is often measured as a mood or emotion,” said Teagarden, who points out that moods change, but engagement does not necessarily need to fluctuate as well.

8. Using salary and rewards as an engagement replacement

When the economy was weak, engagement activities were viewed as an inexpensive replacement for salaries and rewards, according to communications strategist Williams. Now the opposite seems to be occurring: employers are re-evaluating pay scales and benefits and expecting the salary bumps to translate into an engagement boost. “It’s refreshing that we’ve come back to the idea that compensation is important,” he said, but he cautions that pay scales and benefits are merely a foundation for trust, commitment and engagement, not a substitute.

9. Covering up survey results

No matter how much HR reworks the survey results before presenting them to the board, the concerns of employees will remain. Whitewashing doesn’t work, nor does punishing managers who oversee problem areas. If you go to the effort of conducting a survey, then hiding them won’t fix anything.

10. Expecting to engage overworked employees

The goal of engagement isn’t to squeeze more work out of people who already have a full plate of responsibilities.  Therefore, if workloads are an issue, your employees will never be engaged.

Attempting to take the easy route to employee engagement will only waste money, effort and your employees’ goodwill. Communications strategist Williams suggests that employers take a comprehensive view of employee engagement by examining compensation, employees’ ability to self-determine aspects of their job and the alignment of corporate values with leadership behaviors, then “pick the right metrics that drive outcomes.” This will look different for every organization.

Knowing exactly which combination of activities to embark on is the challenge. Employee engagement expert Teagarden advocates accounting for shifts in the business environment, employee moods and other stressors. “Maximum productivity and maximum engagement is possible, but companies need a roadmap.  Understanding employees’ reaction to stress is the missing link,” she said.

Her research resulted in a tool that arms organizations with such a roadmap. Otherwise, she says, companies are throwing money at a problem without a plan for properly targeting the true problem areas.

No one is suggesting that the foosball table needs to disappear, but everyone agrees that engagement is a complex problem that requires a complete solution.

If you want to learn more about achieving authentic and lasting engagement, start by building your leadership credibility. Download the free eBook Character Trumps Credentials: 171 Questions that Help Leaders Tell Great Stories that Influence, Engage and Inspire.