[The Irrationality of Employee Engagement From Paul Hebert-VP Solution Design. Read more about him on our Leadership page.]
I’ve watched as employee engagement has become almost a singular quest by HR and HR-adjacent executives. Employee engagement will cure all ills, lower interest rates, make bald men hairy, increase SAT scores and reverse global warming. Employee engagement is the MAN!
And we (corporate ‘Merica) are spending all kinds of money to reach some level of engagement nirvana that we still can’t define (is it 70% engaged? 80%? 65%? – who knows.) This disconnect between what we want – engagement – and what we’ve been getting – continued disengagement, is where I’m spending more of my thinking time. It seems to me that to fall in line with the rest of the engagement evangelists that speak in tongues about empowerment, autonomy, recognition, benefits, flattening the organization, involving the C-Suite, etc., etc., is the surest path to “me-to” programs with a lot of flash and little true results.
Something isn’t working and that is where we should be focusing our time and energy. Why, even after a decade-long focus on driving engagement, are still showing lackluster results?
That’s the research I want to see – not the weekly whitepaper suggesting (through correlation not causation) that ACME Company has the answer. They don’t. If they did we’d all be buying it and it would be working.
And it just isn’t.
Over the past few weeks I posted a few theories/thoughts about why employee engagement is still elusive…
Well – let me add one more to the mix.
We can’t decide where the “fairness” line is when developing the engagement equation.
I believe that engagement is at its core an equation – company on one side of the equal sign and the employee on the other. Each party has needs, wants, and desires. The closer we can come to balancing that equation the more we are engaged and the more we care about each other’s success.
So far, I think companies have been adding to their side of the equation with greater work flexibility, a bit better benefits (here and there – healthcare is an issue – and will become a bigger one), more focus on “recognizing” employees.
Employees have been adding to their side of the equation by working more with less, working for less and doing more, being thankful they didn’t get laid off.
The one thing missing in this equation is any idea of what actually makes it “balanced.” Without balance – without the “equals” you don’t really have an equation.
What both sides are looking for is a fair and balanced equation.
But we don’t really know what that is.
I started thinking about this issue when I read a refresher on the Ultimatum Game. The Ultimatum Game is one of the most studied and researched social psychology experiments of all time. It is simple in construction but provides some really interesting outcomes.
The game is played by two people who are deciding on how to split a fixed amount of money. There are specific rules they must follow. The first player suggests how much to split the pot and the second player can either accept or reject that split. If the second player says no to the deal neither player gets any money. If the second player accepts the offer, the money is split according to the proposal. There is no negotiation – just a simple offer/acceptance round.
The interesting thing is that from a “rational” point of view any sum offered to the second player should be accepted since it is “found” money. From the offerers point of view they would expect any offer to be accepted. So the “logical” result would be to offer $1 and it would be logical to accept it.
But that doesn’t happen.
The most common offer during the first runs of the experiment showed a fairly even 50/50 split. The questions from the researchers were why would anyone offer up to half the total if the second player would (should?) clearly take any amount of free money? What the researchers found was that an even split was most common AND that offers of less than 20% were very often rejected.
Think about that – someone offers to give you $20 bucks and because they get to keep $80 you say no to the $20. Not very rational.
If we can agree that engagement is about balancing an equation – then in my mind it is ultimately about fairness. Just like the Ultimatum Game.
What the employee thinks is “fair” is what really drives the game.
Employers offer up a split of company resources – some go to the company in the form of bonuses to executives (‘cuz we don’t really think executives are employees), more polished mahogany and perks for a select few – and some resources go to “employees” in the form of salary, benefits, future security, meaning, etc.
And here is where the Ultimatum Game comes into play…
The company is offering the split – a split they think is rational and valuable to the employee. But the employee is looking at the split just like the subjects did in the Ultimatum Game. They aren’t being rational. The split isn’t fair – therefore they reject the offer – they don’t give their discretionary effort. They don’t work harder or become evangelists for the company.
Regardless of whether you think it is a “good” exchange – that is the logical side speaking – the decision is being made irrationally. That is a problem you need to factor into your equation.
I realize that this isn’t a perfect analogy because in the real Ultimatum Game the recipient of the offer does not have to do anything to get the split. In the case of engagement the employee is actually doing something for the offer so there is the little issue of what they think the value of their time and energy is in relation to the company’s offer.
But if in a situation where people would turn down 20% of a total for doing nothing – what is the ratio that people would think is “fair” when there IS effort required. Seems like companies are starting in a hole.
Finding that perfect balance of what to offer is difficult and it requires more communication, more engagement between the company and the employees. Do your due diligence. Assess where you’re starting from. Are employees already feeling like the equation is unbalanced? If so – no amount of “give” by the company will be acceptable. You may have to do some catch up work.
And remember – sometimes it makes no rational sense at all.
Hey – that’s because we’re human. We aren’t rational.