Stop spending money on employee engagement!

Are you tired of hearing about Employee Engagement? I know I am!

Even though it is such a beast of a problem and the weight of a disengaged workforce is wearing down on organizations and their leaders, my suggestion is to stop this insanity. Stop wasting money on employee engagement programs!

Many who have written about this subject have cited Bersin & Associates findings in 2012 about the massive amount of money companies have spent on employee engagement-$720 million a year in the US alone, and the forecast was that it will soon grow to about $1.5 billion. And yet, the needle on employee engagement has barely moved! Gallup reported that it has not seen large year-over-year improvements in its fifteen plus years history of measuring and tracking the metric. Individuals who are truly engaged in the workplace has consistently averaged less than 33%! Its research also shows that disengaged workforce cost US companies an estimated $450 billion to $550 billion annually.

What is going on?
As a 30-year HR veteran who have worked in the manufacturing, energy, and healthcare industries, I can safely tell you that the reason why employee engagement programs and tactics do not work is because people don’t care about you and your mission, as much as they care about themselves and their mission. It’s a glaring fact that life has become such a mad scramble in the rat race to be somebody these days that it has become a consuming force for most. Don’t believe me? Just go to Facebook and look at the millions of posts-you will find that all of them point to one thing…a need to feel accepted and have significance. Paradoxically, in the need to feel significance and succeed amidst an unforgiving world, people have also unconsciously put such a restrictive choke-hold on themselves that the mere act of living for some, has become a total drag! And their work-life is a direct reflection of this fact.

When people are in the thick of survival in our ever fast-moving and brutally competitive world, they need more than just programs to help them be engaged. They need inspiration and they need answers to their problems! When they are stuck in a pattern of life that is not fully serving them, they need a leader who can illuminate this truth for them and show them a way out of the stuck they are in. When I discovered this truth, I left my HR career and devoted my life to finding ways to help people and organizations get unstuck and discover how to attack this massive beast called disengagement.

Employee engagement re-examined

So why is engagement such an issue at the workplace these days? To help answer that question, let’s take a glimpse into the life of a working professional in middle class America.

Meet Suzi Jones, a Nurse Manager at the Medical Unit of St. Anthony’s Hospital. Suzi has worked at the hospital for over nine years now and while she was once among the top performers at St. Anthony’s, she is now at the brink of losing her job. Managing 10 RNs, 12 CNA’s, and overseeing all the fiscal aspects of her unit have been extremely challenging for Suzi these past 12 months. Not only has she not been able to meet any of the targets set-forth for her unit, she is also vividly aware that her unit has the lowest employee engagement scores within that hospital. She has tried numerous times to convince her boss, the Chief Nursing Officer that she cares about her job and wants to do well. But tried as she may, she has been unable to effectively articulate to them why she is struggling. She would often get tongue-tied when she tried - sometimes because she didn’t know how to express herself, but mostly because she felt people do not care about her problems. Despite being pulled into the office with her CNO and the HR Director 2 months ago where she was put on a 90-day Performance Improvement Plan, she has not been able to make any significant changes that would convince them she is not a lost cause.

What else is going on?

Now let’s meet Suzi Jones, the person. Suzi is a 36-year-old single mother with an 8-year old daughter named Dakota and a 5-year old autistic son named James. Suzi was once a five foot ten, bright-eye bushy tail fox with luscious long red hair and a figure worthy of the Ford Modeling Agency. Raised alongside a younger brother by a father who spent his whole life working for a local mining company and an angry stay-at-home mother, Suzi learned from an early age that it is important to be Somebody. Their dinners were regularly peppered with roots of bitterness springing up from both her parents as they all marinated in the sauce of perceived injustice in their lives, year in and year out. Suzi broke herself out of that negative mold when she met Kyle her junior year in High School. Kyle was raised by parents who were both attorneys and has a totally different outlook about life. They got married after college and while both ended up in great careers, Suzi continued to struggle with self-esteem issues which have wreaked havoc to her marriage and her professional life. Since her divorce from Kyle over 2 years ago she has not only struggled with her weigh and chronic fatigue, she has racked up a large amount of debt in her attempt to be Somebody while her life is falling apart. As if life just couldn’t get any more challenging for Suzi, she found out 6 weeks ago that Kyle has filed for full custody of their children.

As an employer, you most likely have no clue as to who Suzi really is and what is happening in her personal life. And since conventional wisdom usually tells you to steer clear of personal matters concerning your employees, you have no idea that Suzi is at the brink of a nervous breakdown! What concerns you as an employer is that you follow protocols given to you by your HR Department on how to handle “trouble” employees. As for employee engagement in her department, your instinct is to spend more money to deploy more creative programs to increase engagement while the company works on one last attempt to “save” Suzi from losing her job. What you do not realize is that the employees in Suzi’s department and the rest of the organization are watching you. And while you believe that Suzi’s situation is a separate matter, I am here to tell you that it is not. How you handle that situation has more impact on employee engagement than any amount of money you are willing to throw at moving that needle!

Employee engagement dissected

I was invited by a friend to attend a Chamber of Commerce luncheon a few Fridays ago to learn about its local hospital’s decision to enter into a Management Service Agreement with a large hospital system in a neighboring state. As I sat there listening to the speeches, it occurred to me that the challenges organizations face in tackling this massive beast called Employee Engagement, are not so unlike those faced by the healthcare industry. Whether we are talking about employee disengagement or the health of the community, we must get to the core of what is causing the insanity before we can change its trajectory. The dichotomy here is that the answer lies in something as simple as, and as complex as, human behaviors. No amount of money spent in the best programs or equipment, state-of-the art analytics, or the best talents, will matter much if we neglect to look at human behaviors - whether it is in organizations or in health-related matters.

The one observation about human beings that has not changed for me in my thirty years in HR, is that we all crave connection. And Scientist Matthew Lieberman alluded to this in an article published in The Scientific American®. Dr. Liberman uncovered the neuroscience of human connections and the broad implications for how we live our lives. He made the case that our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water. And here lies the reason why all the millions of dollars spent on employee engagement thus far have barely moved the needle of engagement, both in the U.S. and globally! I would go as far as to state that I believe all the employee engagement “programs” have inadvertently created less engaged leaders and in turn, a disengaged workforce. Now please don’t get me wrong-I am not saying that all leaders are disengaged. What I am stating is that when leaders believe “programs” can increase engagement, then “programs” are what they are going to use to move that needle. But science have shown that humans do not connect with programs-they connect with other humans.

And there is more to connecting with another human than just merely saying “hi” and adding a canned “how are you?” as your mind wonders off while the other person is telling you about their day or how they are doing. That is why I believe John Maxwell is right-on when he said that everyone communicates but few connect.1 I have learned from him that it’s because communication is about the exchange of information, while connecting is about caring enough to want to know more. The key is “caring enough.” In the crazy-paced world we live in, all of us are so bogged down by the requirements of work and personal life that it is amazing any of us can function optimally at all!

To truly care about another human being takes effort on our part. But how do you do that when so much is being asked of you-not just by your employer, but by your family and friends? That question is what led me to what I do now-be the Pattern Interrupter for organizations and individuals who desire a different trajectory for themselves. When people have deep seated hurt or negative experiences in their lives that are blocking them, it is almost impossible for any breakthrough to happen. That is why I am so passionate about bringing this to light.

In his book, “The second curve,” Ian Morrison asserted that when organizations hit a plateau during which uncertainty about the future is heightened, some are paralyzed, while others chart a new course.2 Morrison called this their second curve. So, what course of action are you or your organization going to take next? Are you going to continue deploying the same strategies to engage your workforce or are you ready to chart a new course? I would leave you with two questions to ponder in the areas of workforce engagement: 1) What do you have now that you do not want? 2) What do you not have that you want?

About the author

Selina Hoflund is a Principle Consultant at Release 2 Thrive, an extension of Ascension Business Solutions Corporation. She is a recognized human behavior expert, mentor, speaker and trainer. Dr. Hoflund has taught on topics such as employee engagement, neuro linguistic programming, leadership excellence, and the brilliance of the unconscious mind. Her joy comes from watching clients get unstuck and achieve the vision they have for their organizations and their lives. Selina is the author of Release 2 Thrive: A guide to getting unstuck and achieving your desired results. Contact her at or via her website, connect with her on LinkedIn, or follow her on Facebook.

1 Maxwell, John C. Everyone communicates, few connect. Nashville, Tennessee. Thomas Nelson, 2010
2 Morrison, Ian. The second curve: Managing the velocity of change. New York, New York. Ballantine Books, 1996

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