Is There Something Wrong With Employee Engagement?

Maybe we need to take a second look at how we are engaging people. We need to look at making work revolve around engagement rather than engagement revolving around work.

When I first met my wife, Irene, it was love at first sight. Shortly thereafter, I proposed to her in a written letter, and we soon were engaged to be married. The ring was my pledge to marry her; her saying, “Yes,” back to me indicated her agreement to go along with this.

I am pleased to say we have been “happily” married for more than 35 years. Happily is placed in quotation marks simply because marriage is hard work. As a typical male, I know I have not always been the easiest person to live with. Both of us have learned to give and take in all aspects of our lives. I also think in the process of growing in love together, we have discovered more about ourselves along the way. When getting married, the term, “engagement,” is mostly a short-lived timeframe that is really just a pre-cursor to marriage itself—which, of course, is hoped to be a forever experience.

Now let’s move away from relationship engagement associated with marriage and set our focus on employee engagement, which somehow also has an implied “happily ever after” aspect. Perhaps we have focused too much on getting employees engaged versus working together for the long term of developing a loving and caring relationship.

Consider the current picture of employee engagement. According to Gallup, the percentage of U.S. workers engaged in their jobs fell to an average of 31.7 percent in March of this year, down from an average of 32.9 percent in February. At least employee engagement for first quarter 2015 was greater than that in first quarter 2014. In comparison, approximately 40 to 50 percent of married couples in the U.S. divorce. The opposite of this means 50 to 60 percent of couples stay married. So far, marriage is doing a much better job than our companies, even though we spend more time at work than we do at home.

Karsten Bundgaard, co-founder of Danish firm Motivation Factor (, conducted a study with IDG Research using a traditional employee satisfaction survey along with their Motivation Factor Index. The Motivation Factor Index assesses Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation, as well as Motivation Capability, or the ability to identify what gives and what takes away your motivation. Their research showed that 55 percent of an employee’s overall engagement is derived from or influenced by external motivators, while 45 percent is derived from or influenced by internal motivation factors and motivation capability.

Bundgaard suggests most company-driven employee engagement initiatives have only been addressing slightly more than half of the engagement equation. The balance is fully in the hands of the employee, which rarely gets addressed or assisted. My colleague and friend, David Zinger, founder of the Employee Engagement Network (, makes a valid point when he says, “Expecting the organizations we work with to engage us is to transform ourselves into the victim role. It also creates the view that organizations are paternalistic in nature and essentially control us.”

Zinger highlights the fact that people finally are waking up to personal responsibility for engagement, paired with organizational accountability for what they should be doing.

Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., author of “The Dance of Anger” and recent book “Marriage Rules,” outlines ways to improve your marriage by starting with you and your own behavior. She believes waiting for your spouse to change first is a recipe for unhappiness and divorce.

Sometimes as employees, we are waiting for our immediate supervisor or manager to change their behaviors first and even expect the C-suite or corporation to make a rapid turnaround, or else! How many of us have left an organization or a department when we hadn’t fully resolved the situation that motivated us to leave? We blamed rather than take responsibility for our part in the situation.

Both parties in the equation, whether a loving couple or an employer and an employee, must look beyond the courtship stage of trying to woo or win the other over. The workplace engagement that everyone is trying to increase the scores and outcomes for is really about the emotional relationship and sense of appreciation in working together. It is the marriage and no longer engagement!

Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., a marital therapist interviewed by Dawn Raffel for Oprah Magazine said, “Real love is a verb. It’s a behavior in which the welfare of another person is the primary intention and goal.” 

Employee engagement might be redefined in this marital analogy to being where both the employer and the employee are looking at the welfare of each party as their first priority and primary goal. Hendrix also said, “Love as a verb isn’t dependent on how you feel or even what you think. Instead, you make an unconditional commitment to the other person.”

There is much emphasis put on the metrics of how engaged employees “feel” without a true indication of the unconditional commitment by each party. In that sense, we also should be collecting data on “employer” engagement and their commitment toward their employees. That would make for an interesting correlational study.

Personally, I like Zinger’s idea for the need of an “engagement revolution.” He is not speaking about a corporate takeover or employee coup storming the C-suite. Rather, it is about making things happen so that work revolves around engagement rather than engagement revolving around work. Similarly, like love in a good marriage, love and commitment must come first, and the good times and bad times that follow are experienced as being part of the journey of being and living together.

Let’s all rally for more positive workplace commitments and relationships between employers and employees, as we refine the enigma that employee engagement has become.

Roy Saunderson is author of “GIVING the Real Recognition Way” and Chief Learning Officer of Rideau’s Recognition Management Institute, a consulting and training firm specializing in helping companies “get recognition right.” Its focus is on showing leaders how to give real recognition to create positive relationships, better workplaces, and real results. For more information, contact or visit

Roy Saunderson, MA, CRP, is author of “Practicing Recognition” and Chief Learning Officer at Rideau Recognition Solutions. His consulting and learning skills focus on helping companies “give real recognition the right way wherever they are.” For recognition insights, visit: For more information, e-mail him at: or visit: