In the second half of the twentieth century up to today, we can see a vast change in employee engagement. The degree of differences are remarkable and sweeping, effecting everything from production level to employee retention.
Clearing The Air
Let us first clarify the situation with explaining what we mean employee engagement to be. According to author and leadership expert David Irvine, it can be defined in a number of ways:
- The desire by employees to go the extra mile to help their organization succeed while deeming their work meaningful and significant.
- Demonstrating a sustained, substantial participation. It’s a positive emotional connection an employee has to their work and their workplace.
- Engagement goes beyond mere ‘satisfaction’ to deep caring and commitment. It’s about wanting to give more than is required or even expected. It is about being self-motivated.
- It demonstrates capability to collaborate, innovate and hold one’s self accountable.
In other words, engagement by an employee is observed as a wholly positive endeavor. What are some good things that can result from this behaviour? This is where in behooves us to look back to our parent’s and even grandparents generation. Throughout the mid twentieth century – for our purposes we shall say the 1940’s – 1960’s – people demonstrated great amounts of employee engagement perhaps because they had long term careers with the same employer and relationships with many of the same people so they had to find a way to collaborate.
They built loyalty and took pride in doing their utmost to show a level of professionalism that went above and beyond expectation. They took personal pride in their particular companies and attempted to make the workplace a second home and family through such activities as golf tournaments, office christmas parties and the ubiquitous but now almost extinct company weekend picnics.
These activities took employees beyond the simple office walls of day-to-day work, allowing them to form bonds of trust, admiration and camaraderie with their peers that would not have been possible otherwise. This fostered a sense of teamwork that spurred employees to go the extra mile in order to assist their employer in growth and success. They actually could return home after work feeling a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in what they had helped to achieve.
We know this to be true due to the fact that these positive influences upon the worker, specifically employee engagement, manifested themselves in a single overpowering result that was the hallmark of professional pride in the mid twentieth century: Because people felt engaged to not only their work, but to the company that employed them, they returned that positivity by demonstrating total loyalty to their company. Quite simply put – they stayed put.
People did not “job hop” back then. When things began to become difficult at work, instead of jumping ship for a minimally better offer, they pulled together with their fellow employees, who also had been encouraged into engagement and saw things through to the other side. Individuals would commonly stay with a company for the entire span of their career, something almost unheard of today. In many cases (although not all) this loyalty would then be rewarded with full retirement benefits given to people who had spent their working lives actively attempting to better a company’s position.
That is correct. Believe it or not, back in the day it wasn’t just government and the military that rewarded long term service with retirement packages. This was a policy private companies once practiced also. In a nutshell, companies treated their employees with respect, encouraging not only professional but personal bonds to be formed in the working environment. This in turn, fostered personal loyalty which manifested itself in employee engagement and long term employment. A person’s career long commitment and effort was then consequently rewarded with being taken care of in their golden years by the people that employed them to begin with. It was a true case of people and companies forming a symbiote circle – or in layman’s terms; one hand washing the other.
So What Happened?
So what in the world happened? One look at today’s professional zeitgeist shows almost no relation to the environment we have just described. It appears that people feel an ‘every person for themselves’ attitude is necessary for success. Instead of encouraging co-operation, some companies deem competition between fellow employees to be desirable. There exists a true ‘divide and conquer’ attitude amongst many contemporary management policies. Many bond building activities have slowly been phased out of employees annual regimens. Christmas parties are dumbed down to “lunch hour potluck.” Golf tournaments are restricted to sales and management only and how many companies take the time, effort and expense to host company wide family picnics, with fun games and relationship building activities? There are some, but not many.
In turn, people feel disassociated not only from their fellow employees, but from their company as well. They return home after work not with a sense of accomplishment but feeling frustrated and empty. By being treated as no more than a cog in the machine, employee engagement has been effectively reduced to a level that can best be described as negative involvement – better known as apathy. If the company clearly shows no desire to treat their people as important, contributing individuals, why should those same employees “go the extra mile?”
What used to be comprehensive retirement plans have devolved into 401k’s which themselves have become an endangered species. Profit sharing is now the exception, rather than the rule and company health-care has devolved to choosing the contractor with the lowest bid. Is it any wonder that in today’s workplace, lifelong loyalty to one company is almost unheard of?
Employees have no recourse other than the next best offer when things get difficult at work. Unfortunately, for all concerned, the next best thing is rarely better than their present situation. Employee Turnover instead of Employee Engagement is the unspoken mantra of our contemporary business climate. What is overlooked by many managers and owners, is the money a company saves in eliminating such “frivolous” activities such as parties and picnics (things that foster positivity) they MORE than make up for in time and effort spent on training new employees who are ever-revolving into the company to replace those who have left due to frustration and disgruntlement. In many cases, this constant training of rookies is significantly more expensive than the cost incurred to encourage long term loyalty among its people.
A Lose-Lose Situation?
Through cycles of negative action and reaction, both the individual and the company as a whole are much less better off than when the two worked hand in hand to mutual benefit. In the end, employees themselves must be willing to stick with their employers through difficult times, but the true solution to this dilemma resides with the employers and companies themselves.
Through management education, those that sit in power and make the decisions must be made to see that it is in their best interest to begin once again to treat the people that work for them – the people who embody the productive elements of the company – as appreciated individuals invested in the company’s success. They must realize that once more it would behoove everybody involved to engender professional and personal co-operation between fellow employees. As has been shown, this path leads to mutual trust encouraging co-workers to work as a team to solve problems that otherwise may have led to employee turnover. The successful navigation of problems by the group then lends a sense of accomplishment to the individual which ultimately leaves the overall environment ripe for the development and sustained existence of employee engagement, benefiting all involved.