Why Engagement Programs Can’t Work

Until we bring management into the coordination era, engagement programs are not going to make the difference we need.

Unless you have been asleep for the last few years, you are all too aware that engagement programs are the latest fad to sweep the training world. We now have any number of offers for engagement surveys; analysis; diagnosis; and, of course, training. I am going to be the contrarian and suggest that it is all a colossal waste of time and money. Yes, I know that runs contrary to the current commonsense and to some it is even blasphemous. Let me make my case nonetheless.

The short version of the story is this. Engagement programs can’t work because they are attempting to treat a symptom, not a cause, and unless you treat the cause, no amount of symptomatic work is going to make any difference.

Are American workers fully engaged in their work? Absolutely not. Is this a new phenomenon? No, it has been going on for decades and now is starting to get more pervasive. Let’s start with that as the opening premise and work our way into both cause and solution.

The Mood Effect

Why are workers not engaged? Largely because they are stuck in unproductive moods. What is a mood? It is what we refer to as the embodied predisposition toward the future. As human beings, we are all in the grip of some mood all of the time. This is an inescapable aspect of life. This is an important conversation as moods drive our actions, and as we all know from experience, they are contagious.

To keep things simple, moods come in two varieties: productive and unproductive. Productive moods include ambition, confidence, trust, and acceptance. Unproductive moods include distrust, resentment, resignation, cynicism, arrogance, complacency, and entitlement. People who live in productive moods see the world very differently than people who live in unproductive moods. Remember, the world is the same, but to the person who lives in ambition, the world is a place of possibility and his or her work is always engaging as that is how the mood of ambition manifests. Contrast that with the person who lives in resignation or resentment. Here, the world is a place of limited possibilities, and to them, it is unlikely they can realize even those few. Resignation is the story of no possibility, and resentment is the narrative in which someone has wronged me and I am committed to making him or her pay and to not talking to anyone who can do anything about it.

When people are in the grip of unproductive moods, it is not possible for them to be engaged, as engagement is the visible “symptom” of ambition, confidence, and trust. Engagement can only occur in the presence of productive moods, and no amount of “happy clappy” engagement work is going to dispel unproductive moods.

Industrial Era Management Practices

Why are people in unproductive moods? Because we are using dangerously outdated management practices to run contemporary organizations. What we call “modern management practices” were all invented by people who were born in the 1800s. They were designed to be effective in the early industrial era of Henry Ford. The problem they were trying to solve then was simple: How do we get uneducated and unsophisticated farmers and day laborers to be competent reliable factory workers? They came up with two main answers that haunt us to this day.

First they deskilled the work so that anyone could do any job. You may have been a skilled craftsman who built wooden panels for horse-drawn carriages. Now you are going to put five nuts on the wheels of a Model T all day. What, you don’t like putting five nuts on the wheels of a Model T all day every day? That’s fine, we have a hundred others who are clamoring for that job. Remember that in those days there was no social safety net. People worked out of survival. If you didn’t work, you and your family didn’t eat. That mindset and decision put in place a tradition of distrust between labor and management that lingers to this day. And as if that were not enough, it suddenly dehumanized the nature and practice of work. The people were suddenly no different than the nuts they put on the wheels—completely interchangeable.

The second answer was that they developed a series of accounting and management practices that were designed to ensure standardization, minimize surprises, and maintain order and control while measuring only the things they could see, which came to be in-put, through-put, and out-put. Thus was born the modern industrial complex and bureaucracy. To be fair, it made sense at the time and it enabled 70 years of historically unprecedented growth.

Entering the Coordination Era

Today, the industrial era is behind us, but we are still using the same old thinking and practices, and as the surveys tell us, they are becoming increasingly ineffective. Why? Because we have entered a new era, the coordination era. In this new era, the value generators are not factory production workers. They are coordination workers. These are people who are educated, agile, mobile, creative, innovative, and good at problem solving. They generate value not by making things but by their effective coordination with each other to produce customer satisfaction. Unlike industrial era workers, they are not driven by survival. Instead they are moved by three very different factors. Daniel Pink identified them well as:

Autonomy: As I am educated, I don’t need someone standing over my shoulder “supervising” me all the time. That produces resentment.

Mastery: I want to continue to develop myself and thereby enhance my capacity to make a difference in the world. The lack of effective corporate development programs (another topic for another day) produces resignation.

Purpose: I want what I do to matter. I want to be up to something with my work. The lack of a straight-line connection to what I do and something meaningful in and for the world produces cynicism.

Industrial-era thinking doesn’t not recognize these drivers and, in fact, tends to demean them as the dreaded “touchy-feely” stuff. It is this very blindness that is at the root of the problem.

A Strategy for Tragedy

Today, the biggest growth sector in our economy is small business. Where are all of the small businesspeople coming from? Big business. They refuse to tolerate industrial-era management practices, which continue to be focused on supervision, compliance, distrust, and mind-numbing processes. Rather than continue to suffer, the brave ones leave and the others disengage. This is what we call a strategy for tragedy.

As you can see, there are large historical forces at play here. We are living in the midst of a grand epochal change, and what needs to change most of all is our interpretation and practice of management. Until we bring management into the coordination era, engagement programs are not going to make the difference we need.
Chris Majer, founder and chief executive officer of The Human Potential Project, is the author of “The Power to Transform: Passion, Power, and Purpose in Daily Life” (Rodale), which teaches the strategies corporate, military, and sports leaders have used to positively transform themselves and their organizations in a way readers can adapt to their own lives and professions. He may be reached at www.humanpotentialproject.com.


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