Exploitation Masquerading as Engagement

Most companies measure employee engagement. It represents one critical way to determine the level of commitment and productivity of their human capital.

An abundance of research suggests a high correlation between employee engagement and great performance.

Engagement is typically defined as “the willingness to invest discretionary effort at work – to go above and beyond what’s expected. In a recent New York Times article, Tony Schwartz, the CEO of Life@Work, admits that the book he wrote over a decade ago, The Power of Full Engagement, is in need of a major revision.

He suggests that engagement has morphed into burnout and exploitation.

Credit: Death to the Stock Photo
Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

After a major research study in 2012, Towers Perrin found that high engagement, as it has been traditionally defined, is no longer sufficient to achieve high performance. The study determined that employees in companies with the highest profits were sustainably engaged which describes how employees feel when their companies promote their physical, emotional, and social well-being. Their study corroborates the results of earlier studies on employee commitment, i.e. high performing employees believe that their leaders care about their well-being, are able to achieve a reasonable balance between work and personal life, and report a manageable level of stress in their life.

Over the past 40 years, I have worked with hundreds of organizations. All of them have struggled with these three critical issues: how to promote employee well-being, how to allow for work/life balance, and how to help employees manage stress, while simultaneously beating Wall Street expectations. Unfortunately, in the last decade, I have noticed stress going up, care for employee well-being going down, and balance going by the wayside.

In many companies with whom I currently consult, employees regularly work 60-70 hours per week under tight deadlines and demanding conditions. Result: stress up, care down, and balance out.

The question is, “at what point does “engagement turn into exploitation?”

What I have found to be helpful to organizations, who really don’t want to cross the line from engagement to exploitation, is have a scale to measure where they are and to point to where they want to be. The scale I use for employee motivation and productivity is:

5.0: Inspired
4.0: Energized
3.0 Sustainably Engaged
2.0: Committed
1.0: Satisfied

Author: andreas160578 | License: CC0
Credit: andreas160578

Here’s a brief description of each level.

Satisfaction: It’s a good thing when employees are satisfied with their compensation, benefits, and working conditions. The problem is that satisfaction doesn’t always translate into commitment. A satisfied employee is one who does what is asked and nothing more. Satisfaction can also turn quickly into complacency, and a satisfied employee is usually only one complaint away from being dissatisfied.

Commitment: A committed employee not only does what is asked, but also applies him or herself fully to the task at hand. A committed employee clarifies requirements for every task and applies the right capabilities to meet those requirements.

Sustainable Engagement: A sustainably engaged employee participates fully in decisions effecting work and takes full responsibility for completing tasks on time in accordance with requirements. Engaged employees feel informed of what’s going on and involved in decisions that affect them. By definition, the sustainably engaged employee is able to achieve performance objectives AND work/life balance.

Energized: An energized employee brings fresh ideas to projects, adds value to others, and contributes to product/process improvement. It’s impossible to have an energized employee with no fuel in the tank. Energized employees are not only getting time to rest, reflect, and re-charge, they are also looking for opportunities to lead and make a difference. In order to energize employees, the organization must create a culture that supports multi-dimensional needs.

Inspiration: An inspired employee finds joy in his relationships at work and in the contribution he or she is making to the larger good. At this level the employee needs to believe in the mission of the organization and feel that the work is meaningful and impactful.

So what is required to achieve each level of motivation and productivity? The chart below summarizes the key factors:

Level of Motivation  Productivity Key Requirements to achieve this level
5.0 Inspired Meaningful purpose and mission
4.0 Energized Positive and supportive culture
3.0 Sustainably engaged Genuine, responsive, caring leadership
2.0 Committed  Clear objectives and developmental opportunities
1.0 Satisfied  Fair pay, benefits, and expectations

The challenge for most organizations today is to inspire and energize their employees while maintaining a competitive advantage in the global marketplace.

Engagement is a good place to start, but it can’t cross the line and slip into exploitation.

If you are an employee, where do you rate yourself on this scale? If you are an organizational leader, are you creating the conditions that fulfill the requirements to achieve the level of motivation and productivity you profess to desire. How do you know when you’ve crossed the line from engagement to exploitation?

Also published on Medium.

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