THE BLOG

Evolved Leaders Beware: Employee Engagement Can Be a Trap

11/20/2012 02:02 pm ET | Updated Jan 20, 2013

Engaged employees work harder, produce more, lead happier and more fulfilled lives, and create better societies. They thrive at work, at home, and in life. Lucky for your employees, you're sophisticated enough to grasp this, and evolved enough to want to create it for them.

Actually, that may not be so lucky for them, or for you. Your perspective on employee engagement creates a trap, and it's one into which many of your fellow Illuminati are falling. Ironically, it's caused primarily by your increased attention to engagement relative to your less evolved peers.

Those lesser managers just don't care if their employees are engaged or not. Some of them don't even know it! They stumble through their management careers under the misconception that if the employees aren't happy, it's the employees' problem. Employees can quit if they want to, and be replaced. The unenlightened have no grasp of the hard and soft costs of disengagement.

They're wrong, of course, and that's how the trap is set: If what they're doing is wrong, the opposite of what they're doing must be right. So if not knowing or caring whether your employees are engaged is wrong, then taking full responsibility for your employees' engagement must be right.

And so, in proper highly-evolved form, you take ownership. You ask employees, in person and via survey, whether they're engaged and joyful at work. On its face, it's a reasonable line of questioning: "How well are we doing at keeping you engaged, and how can we do better?"

The trap slams shut. You've just notified you're employees that it's your job to keep them happy. They respond with a list of demands. They can't be happy until they're given higher salary, greater responsibility, a more impressive title, a view, and a bean bag chair. But there are only so many raises to go around, so many projects to do and titles to have, and so many square feet in which to pile the bean bags. So you find yourself negotiating: Give Penny the promotion, Tammy the Title, and William the window. And have HR announce that bean bags pose a trip hazard.

Suddenly, nobody's happy. You've failed at employee engagement, because you can't give them what they want. But where did it all go wrong? Was it overly demanding employees, scarce salary budgets, or draconian job title guidelines?

Sorry, but it was you. No matter how well-meaning you are, "I'll make you happy" is a recipe for disaster, at work and in teen romance. When you try to take responsibility for another person's happiness, you create a dysfunctional, dependent relationship.

Avoid the trap. Attend to engagement without promising happiness. Build an environment that allows people to grow without putting yourself in the role of Santa Claus. Tell employees it's up to them to find their own engagement, and up to you to encourage and support them in doing so. Be honest about what needs to get done for your team to succeed, and the fact that it won't all be fun. And teach employees to troubleshoot their own engagement issues. Help them to work toward what they most enjoy even as they perform their jobs well today.

As your employees improve at their current jobs, they'll have more options and directions in which to grow. As they learn to troubleshooting engagement problems and recognize what they enjoy, they'll move into work that engages them at a higher level. Over time, the entire system will evolve toward greater employee engagement, and attract even more talent. In the process, it will thrive.

That's engagement done right. It's exciting, it's positive, it attracts and retains great employees, and it builds community through productivity. And, it's better than a giant pile of bean bag chairs.

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