The other day a colleague of mine who is a HR VP told me that employee engagement was “hot.” The way he stated it leads one to believe that employee engagement is a new concern, a new concept, a new philosophy, or, if you will, a new mantra.
I was a bit astonished if not perplexed. It never dawned on me that the notion of employee engagement had been on some invisible back burner and was suddenly emerging as a popular management tool since it has been and integral concern of organizational and management theory for decades. Indeed, a disproportionate amount of the literature in the fields of organizational psychology and organizational behavior is sharply focused on employee engagement. The terminology may be different and the variables augmented, but the same concepts are explored.
Employee engagement, concerned with how employees establish bonds of commitment, motivation, drive, and focus with their organization, is driven by a very simple dichotomy exemplified by Douglas McGregor who draws two distinct assumptions that we make about employees. Theory X assumes that employees want to be directed and avoid responsibility and Theory Y maintains that workers seek autonomy and responsibility. One set of assumptions believes that people are driven by simply the “what’s in it for me?” game while the other assumes a greater sense of collective engagement.
The issue of employee engagement is not simply one of trying to understand what’s in the head of employees, but rather the honest assessment of what mindset you, as a supervisor, manager, or leader, want to project to employees.
W.I. Thomas, a famous sociologist, once said “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” Indeed, self-fulfilling prophecies are a powerful tool, so the first step in employee engagement is not to ask ourselves what’s in the head of employees but to instead ask ourselves what’s in the head of their supervisors.
If supervisor’s assume a “what’s in it for me?” mindset (Theory X) they will create one set of expectations and if they assume that employees are self motivated and concerned with the collective good (Theory Y) they will create a distinctly different set of expectations. In one case, (Theory X) supervisors will establish extrinsic engagement and in another case you will establish intrinsic engagement (Theory Y). When you establish extrinsic engagement you are engaging employees by your ability to pay them, reward them, and recognize them. On the other hand, when you establish intrinsic engagement you are engaging your employees by stimulating their sense of self-fulfillment and group participation. In order to engage employees your challenge is to balance these two mindsets. Your challenge is to know what type of bonds of engagement you want to establish.
Social science, be it concerned with industrial psychology or management theory, teaches us that solely thinking with an “either/or” mindset is dangerous. As such, it becomes obvious that the crucial skill you need in order to engage employees is the ability to know when to use one engagement tactic over another. The same motivation, the same commitment, the same involvement, the same engagement, is not appropriate for all situations. In the future we hope to elaborate on some of this.