Why We Can't 'Motivate' Engagement

Chief executive officers are concerned about employee engagement — and rightfully so. Senior management teams are investing great time, effort and money in improving their workforce-engagement numbers. They shouldn't be — at least not until they are prepared to harness the full energy of an engaged workforce.

Despite significant effort to improve employee engagement, it remains at an all-time low among the U.S. workforce. This has sparked a surge in valuable guidance on how to transform disengaged workers into engaged employees.

Unfortunately, the majority of engagement-improvement initiatives continue to treat employee engagement as an end goal. Employee engagement is a condition — manifested by the inspiration an employee unleashes in his or her work when he or she is deeply connected to a mission, purpose and the values that connect us.

What Masquerades as Engagement
This problem was illustrated in a recent IBM television commercial, in which a motivational speaker decked out in an "Innovation Man" costume struts in front of a line of office workers standing at attention. Innovation Man singles out one of the professionals and peppers him with repeated taunts and questions as to whether he is "fired up" to innovate. The worker dutifully responds, "Sir! Yes, sir!" Innovation Man then questions the employee's commitment: "Why are you fired up?!" The befuddled employee pauses before replying, "I don't have any idea."

We cannot "motivate" engagement (or innovation, growth, or succession for that matter); instead, we must inspire the kind of outcomes we want by rooting ourselves in a set of values, being in the grip of an idea worthy of dedication and commitment, connecting around a meaningful and shared purpose, and aligning around a common, deep and sustainable set of human, societal and environmental values.

Why? Because sustainably engaged employees generate ideas, innovation, creativity, processes and other outcomes that deliver long-term competitive advantages, and they also collaborate with others to make progress.

How well do you think other companies fare in developing cultures based on thick rule books and other carrots and sticks? Not too well, as I've written about before and according to new research. Pay and benefits figure as only one of the four key drivers of job dissatisfaction, according to a recent study by the Conference Board, and compensation barely rates a mention in the study's engagement-improvement steps.

And a 2008 study by Duke University's Fuqua School of Business examined the relationship between financial performance and senior leadership skills. Inspirational and ethical leaders were most strongly associated with stronger financial performance. The Duke study identifies specific behaviors that exemplify inspirational leadership: "engaging employees in the company's vision"; "inspiring employees to raise their goal"; and "promoting an environment in which employees have a sense of responsibility for the whole organization, its mission and constituencies."

A Valuable, and Values-Based, Alternative
This is the new frontier, where companies work in a systemic manner to ensure alignment of their purpose and mission to their business strategies and vision, and then cascade this inspiration through their core values into specific leadership behaviors. Only when observable leadership behaviors are identified, communicated, measured, tracked, managed and integrated into business processes and talent-management systems can an organization evolve on its cultural journey.

Through our work with some of the world's largest and most progressive organizations, helping them build sustainable cultures infused and inspired by sustainable values, we know firsthand that many business leaders are beginning to understand the need to commence this journey. In one large, global company we partner with, we found that 70 percent of employees agreed that a strong mission and purpose drive their organization. However, we also discovered that the company's mission and purpose were disconnected from everyday decisions and behaviors:
  • 50 percent of the same employees indicated that personal achievement and success was a more important driver of their behavior than the organization's purpose and values; and
  • 60 percent of employees thought that supporting a peer who acted within their company values and purpose but in conflict with a policy would result in management disapproval or possible punishment by the organization.
Armed with this evidence and other related insights, this Fortune 100 company and its leaders are now working on how they can connect employees to the shared mission and purpose through values, rather than through rules, so that it manifests in more of the behaviors they want, e.g. more engagement and more innovation. This ability to harmonize a company's values and a company's policies is an important piece in ensuring a company's human operating system is functioning for the benefit of the organization — something I hope to write more about in a future column.

As leaders, we all should recognize that there is work to be done in encouraging behavior that shifts the focus from governing toward developing leaders who inspire principled performance. (I'll show what such work looks like and how it operates in my next column.) We still need rules (along with carrots and sticks), but they are no longer sufficient in an era when organizational success, over the long term, depends on out-behaving the competition.

Improving employee engagement does not require executives to don their motivational capes and work on improving employee engagement. Instead, the process begins with a simple question about the workforce, a query whose answer leaders should act upon: Are our employees inspired?

* This story appeared in, and was written for, Bloomberg BusinessWeek.