The curious case of the object and subject of Employee Engagement


“You should join us only if you fall in love with our company”, said the HR Head to a group of summer interns from premier business schools.”

“I don’t think my exit should be considered as attrition; the company that I am leaving is very different from the company that I had decided to join”, said the OD Manager during his farewell”

I heard these statements quite some time ago. But they pop up in my mind whenever I think about employee engagement. The first statement (made by the HR Head), makes me think more about the appropriateness (or the lack of it) of the various metaphors used to describe employee engagement. The second statement (made by the OD Manager) makes me wonder who or what exactly is it that the object of employee engagement and if employee engagement is a one-way street. Let’s explore these in a bit more detail in this post!

Let’s start with the statement of the HR Head. He definitely had a point. Any transition to a new organization (especially when it is from campus to corporate) will have its own share of frustrations and if one develops a strong emotional connect to the organization (during the summer training, in this case) it becomes easier to overlook these frustrations. It also helps in not getting distracted at the workplace. The metaphor he used (that of falling in love, in the romantic sense of the term ‘love’) has remarkable similarities with the ‘strong emotional connect’ that we found in the definition of employee engagement sense. Yes, romantic love is a great enabler for ‘pair formation’ (and for recruiting one into the organization). Yes, this type of love can also lead to the employee putting in discretionary effort.

The main problem is that people fall out of this kind of love, that too fairly quickly. To put it in another way, while it is a great enabler for pair formation, romantic love is not so effective when it comes to ‘pair maintenance’. Also, as we have seen earlier in ‘Appropriate metaphors for organization commitment’, metaphors that are used to talk about the ‘employer-employee’ relationship often create complications because a metaphor is not an exact comparison and hence inaccurate/misleading meanings and assumptions creep in into our understanding of the relationship. Of course, metaphors have tremendous rhetorical value and hence leaders are tempted to use them for ‘motivating’ the employees (Please see ‘The Power of carrot and stick’ for a discussion on if there is any difference between motivation and manipulation)

Falling in love can lead to attachment or even possessiveness which can be counterproductive (see ‘Passion for work and anasakti’). Also, if the employee falls in love with the organization (and the organization doesn’t fall in love with the employee), it can lead to an exploitative relationship. Love that is not reciprocated often turns into hurt and hate very quickly!

Yes, there are other definitions of love, like the one Scott Peck uses in ‘The Road Less Traveled’ (‘extending oneself for the spiritual growth of another’) that can lead to discretionary effort without the complications mentioned above. But, those types of love are not something that someone can ‘fall into’ as it requires aspects like a higher purpose and conscious decision-making. 

This brings us to the interesting discussion on if it makes sense to (re)define engagement as conscious decision that the employees make instead of being an emotional reaction/outcome of emotional connect. While this sounds promising, this type of engagement (which is a deliberate decision) might not so easily lead to discretionary effort if the returns of that discretionary effort (which can very well be in terms of satisfying the higher order needs like esteem or self-actualization in the Maslow’s hierarchy in addition to satisfying lower order needs like physiological and safety needs that are usually met by salary and job security).

Yes, I have heard employees making statements like “I keep myself engaged regardless of what the organization does or doesn’t do”, though I am not sure if they used the term ‘engagement’ in the sense of discretionary effort (or just in the sense of keeping oneself focused on one’s job). If it is the promised ‘magic of employee engagement’ (creating something out of nothing, like getting extra work done without paying anything extra for it) that get employers excited about employee engagement, then this definition can create complications!

Now let’s come to the statement made by the OD Manager. Here the key issue is ‘what exactly is the ‘company’ that the OD manager was referring to when he talked about ‘the company he joined’ and ‘the company that he was leaving’?’’ Is it the legal entity, is it the company brand , is it the products and product brands, is it the immediate manager, is it the team, is it the senior leaders, is it the CEO, is it the some higher purpose (other than making money) served by the company or is it the way get things get done in the company (company culture)? Most of the studies indicate the ‘immediate manager’ as the most important player in the game of employee engagement. But it could also be because the manager represents the organization for the employee and the organization’s ‘sins’ are often incorrectly attributed to the managers (like when we say ‘people leave managers and not organizations’; see ‘Blame it on the managers‘ for more details). So, when it comes to the object of employee engagement, there are many possibilities and also many combinations of these possibilities!

If we examine the above list of possibilities (objects of employee engagement), we will find that most them can change and that some of them do change frequently in many organizations these days. This also indicates that the loss of social capital/breaking of working relationships during reorganizations can have an adverse impact on employee engagement. Again, it is possible that the employee’s preferences/factors that engage the employee changes during his/her tenure in the organization. So there are many moving parts here, on both sides of the equation, and that makes keeping the employee engaged quite challenging. Hence, employee engagement becomes a continuous activity and it requires a deep understanding and careful management of the evolution of the psychological contract!

At a more fundamental level, the issue here is about the ‘reciprocity’ aspect of employee engagement. Why is it only about the employees feeling emotional connect to the organization (and putting in discretionary effort)  and not also about the organization reciprocating the feeling (and going out of the way to do something for the employees). Yes, as we have seen in the above paragraph, the ‘object’ of employee engagement can vary and hence the issue of who or what exactly is the ‘organization’ that is supposed to reciprocate  can further complicate things. May be, we can just say that all those who benefit from the the discretionary effort put in by the employee should reciprocate. While it is very clear that employee engagement benefits the organization, it is not very clear if it leads  to employee happiness or even employee satisfaction in the long run.

So what does all this mean? To me, (employee) emotions are precious (or even sacred) and they should not be trifled with. Yes, emotions are also highly powerful in driving discretionary effort and they can lead to remarkable (business) results. So, organizations should engage the emotions of the employees only if they are willing to reciprocate (in terms of going out of the way to care for the employees in various ways depending on the context). If the idea is just to increase performance or to create accountability, there are other ways (that works on rational commitment and are well within the scope of the employment contract without getting into the domain of psychological contract) like goal alignment, performance management, gain sharing plans and performance linked incentives that can align the interests of the employer and the employee and hence address the ‘principal -agent problem’ (see ‘Of owning and belonging’ for more details).

Hence, we should leverage the power of emotional connect (and the discretionary effort that comes from it) only if we are willing to look at employee engagement as a relationship (and hence a two-way street) and are able to consistently respond in a manner that respects and nurtures the relationship! Otherwise, we run the risk of the (perceived) intent of our employee engagement efforts resembling that which is often depicted in the cartoon strips on employee engagement (e.g. tricking the employees into ‘gladly putting in extra effort without getting paid anything extra in return’)!

Author-Prasad Kurian is Executive Vice President- Organizational Development at DFPCL (Deepak Fertilisers And Petrochemicals Corporation Limited).


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