Same Train, Same Track: You Gotta Be Honest to Build Better Engagement

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Psychology has a funny way of playing tricks on basic, common sense.

Want more motivation? Why just do more motivating things, right?

Want higher employee engagement? Better put together an employee engagement plan and do all those things to get our employees more engaged.

Sounds simple and straightforward, or so it would seem. The problem is the human psyche is not straightforward and studies will tell us, actually, the more you try to tell your employees about your great work environment and great leadership – the more they’ll believe the opposite!

Employees? They aren’t as dumb as some think

Here’s an example from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, as described in Time magazine:

The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a paper showing that when people get feedback that they believe is overly positive, they actually feel worse, not better. If you try to tell your dim friend that he has the potential of an Einstein, he won’t think he’s any smarter; he will probably just disbelieve your contradictory theory, hew more closely to his own self-assessment and, in the end, feel even dumber. In one fascinating 1990s experiment demonstrating this effect — called cognitive dissonance in official terms — a team including psychologist Joel Cooper of Princeton asked participants to write hard-hearted essays opposing funding for the disabled. When these participants were later told they were compassionate, they felt even worse about what they had written.”

I like to file this under: Employees aren’t as dumb as we think they are!

4 ways to really build employee engagement

Here’s how it works — You have crappy leaders and and a crappy work environment, but you’re being told you need to raise employee engagement. To raise engagement you need to have better leaders and a better work environment.

So, you give your leaders a couple of hours of solid leadership training, rearrange the chairs in the lobby and buy every employee a new satchel with your company’s logo on it. Bam! Engagement engaged.

The problem is, your leaders aren’t really any better – the work environment is the same – and the f***ing handle already broke on the $10 satchel you gave me. Engagement disengaged.

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So, what can you do? Engagement comes when your people feel like everyone is on the same train, same track. Try this:

  1. Measure current engagement and tell your folks that the good, the bad, and the crap we will stop right now, this instant.
  2. Have your leaders talk about your current state, and make it worse than it really is and as transparent as possible.
  3. Have your leaders share the vision of where they want to see engagement to be – reality, not pie in the sky (under promise, over deliver)
  4. Work to try and move the needle on measurable items. Don’t celebrate fluff; it comes off as fake. Communicate reality constantly – reality with a positive tone.

Employee perception IS reality

Employee engagement programs are at their worst when they turn into marketing programs – when you begin selling your employee on something they know is not true. This puts HR in a tough spot, because the engagement your executives feel and see are often quite different than what your employees feel and see.

It’s HR’s job to get your executives to see that the employees’ perception is their reality. To them, there isn’t a difference.

In other words, don’t tell your employees that they’re working in the Four Seasons when they go to work every morning at the Motel 6.

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.