Employee Engagement is Unethical

This week I met with three aspiring consultants who are very passionate about parlaying their experience to help companies create healthy work environments and engaged employees. They almost fell out their chairs when I told them that I am starting to see that employee engagement is actually unethical.

What I DON'T mean when I say this is that companies should not strive to have work environments free from unethical business practices and abusive and inconsiderate leaders who make their employees lives miserable. Providing safe work conditions, equitable pay and reasonable management should be considered “cover charges” for the privilege of hiring others to work for you.

What I think might be bordering on unethical is how organizations have shifted from employee satisfaction to employee engagement and how engagement goals might completely jack up our limbic systems. Let me explain.

Back in the early 2000’s, instead of measuring employee satisfaction (which is to what degree employees are happy and content with their employment experience), organizations started to measure engagement. According to the 2004 report from the Corporate Leadership Council, “Engagement is the extent to which employees commit to something or someone in their organization and how hard they work and how long they stay as a result of that commitment” and it looks something like this:

I am confident that a company can invest time and resources to improve employee engagement. It is possible to enhance the attachment that an employee feels to the company and his or her leader and team. The business case has been proven over and over again that when this happens, employees invest their discretionary efforts towards helping teammates with heavy workloads and providing superior customer service, which enhances customer satisfaction and eventually business results.

But after consulting on countless employee engagement projects, I am starting to see that there are hidden costs to these initiatives. The hidden costs are not to the companies that invest in employee engagement. The costs are to the individual employees and their long-term emotional health and well-being. When the industry shifted from employee satisfaction to employee engagement, companies started to pursue not just an employee’s mind but also their heart to foster additional commitment. And when attachment is sought it is has a profound impact on an employee’s limbic system.

According to doctors and researchers Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon, in their insightful book The General Theory of Love, they explain how the human brain is wired for limbic resonance (the feeling of attraction to another), regulation (how our systems sync with each other and attune with one another) and revision (how connection enables change). They explain, “because our minds seek one another through limbic resonance, because our physiological rhythms answer to the call of limbic regulation, because we can one another’s brains through limbic revision – what we do inside relationships matters more than any other aspect of human life.”

The common phrase, “it’s just business; it’s nothing personal” cannot be farther from the truth. It is this limbic system that creates attachment or in business terms commitment or engagement. When companies pursue enhancing employee engagement they are going after an employee’s limbic system to motivate them to superior performance, which is a problem because:

1. Organizations don’t have limbic systems. According to Lewis, Amini and Lannon, “A company has no limbic structure predisposing it to recognize its own as intrinsically valuable. People who extend fidelity and fealty to a corporate entity – legally a person and biologically a phantom – have been duped into a perilously unilateral contract.” The cold, hard fact is that the old employee contract of “working hard in exchange for job security” is dead. So when the inevitable layoffs and structure changes occur, message points that explain the rational reasons for those decisions are no match for the panic and pain that the limbic brain endures.

2. It creates unrealistic expectations for employees that their boss will be the ideal parent and the company the ideal family. As a consultant, I meet with many employees through focus groups and one-on-one interviews. I hear their feedback on what they feel is working/not in their companies. What I find interesting is the degree of emotional energy that they experience when pointing out what might be neutral issues around technology or bad processes. I know when I was an employee at Disney I had a lot of emotional energy around leadership practices that often had nothing to do with me. After pondering why this might be, I realized how often we bring our unfinished baggage to work and how much we want our bosses to be those ideal parents we never had and our companies and team to be our ideal families. While this dynamic might play out regardless if enhancing employee engagement is pursued, employee engagement initiatives implicitly raise these expectations.

3. It puts a lot of pressure on managers to be everything to everyone. Most managers do not wake up in the morning with the goal of making their employee’s lives a living hell. Most want to do the right thing but oftentimes their hands are tied. They don’t have the freedom to reward employees the way that they want or provide them the resources that they need. And mostly, they don’t always know how to adapt their behavior to meet their employee’s work and emotional needs. They are put in a situation when they are seen as responsible for either causing or inhibiting engagement and they are forced to go to class after class to learn yet another leadership tactic when they simply have no authority to grant an extra day off or provide working from home options or no time to even spend with employees getting to know them and making them feel special.

4. One of the key goals of engagement is having employees that go above and beyond. So what this translates to practically is that instead of a 40-50 hour workweek, an engaged employee will put in 60-70 hour workweeks and be accessible 24/7 (even when on vacation.) Employees with no work/life balance and excessive stress are at risk for a massive limbic crisis because they have no time to foster their legitimate limbic connections with the people who are actually safe to foster limbic resonance, regulation and revision with. What keeps employees emotionally stable is not more of an attachment to their work but to the people in their lives – their partners/spouses, children and friends.

5. And there is an unseen familial and societal downside to engaged employees going above and beyond. Overworked employees leave their loved ones starved for their own limbic resonance, regulation and revision, particularly children. “Because limbic regulation between parent and child directs neurodevelopment,” says Lewis, Amini and Lannon, “social contact is necessary for evolving pieces of behavior to assemble into a functioning animal. Without parental guidance, neurochemical disjunctions accumulate and budding behaviors conglomerate into a mess.”

In our disconnected culture, we are starved for community. While it is a blessing to find yourself on a team with others that you genuinely enjoy working with, the reality is that team will end in a way that hopefully friendships and families will not. The show will close, the project will be completed, members will move on. Therefore, my recommendation to each employee is to manage your expectations of what your company can do for you. Your boss is not your ideal parent; your company is not your ideal family. Guard your heart and attach only to those individuals where there is mutuality and a potential for permanence. Take responsibility for your job and pursue excellence in your work. When you strive for superior performance it will pay off for you in the form of increased competencies, additional opportunities, higher compensation and potential for greater for more flexibility in your working arrangements.

My recommendations to executives seeking to enhance employee engagement: Please leave the limbic brain of your employees out of it. When you do conduct your strategic planning activities and annual planning, absolutely pursue a higher purpose outside of making money because it will make the impact you have greater which will translate ultimately to better returns. When you want to enhance the performance of your employees, create meaty and exciting jobs with equitable compensation. Make career paths clear and achievable. Empower your employees to do great work but do not put of this unnecessary pressure on your managers to make every employee feel special and known. Instead, give them the resources to make every employee productive. Get rid of cumbersome processes because they waste time and money. Go after the rational brain with gusto because when you are do, you are seeking an equitable arrangement that you can authentically deliver on. You can compensate your employees for the value that they create. You can make decisions that are in everyone’s best interest – customers, shareholders AND employees.

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