It’s Not Always About Employee Engagement

My last entry described two customer service encounters I recently had the misfortune of experiencing. The explanation for what may be characterized as mistreatment of a valuable (admittedly, by my own estimation) customer during a difficult economic climate can easily fall within the auspices of employee engagement. It is reasonable to expect that disengaged of insufficiently engaged employees (it is not entirely clear that these are synonymous) would behave in precisely the manner I described. However, I find this this explanation less than satisfying for two reasons:

1. Depending on whom you ask, employee engagement is purported to explain variations in employee behavior between the realm of “good” and “great” It is less often invoked to explain employee behavior that is less than satisfactory. Of course, I have encountered and even worked with individuals that would disagree with this interpretation of engagement theory (such as it is). I do not believe that the theory is sufficiently defined, developed or validated to answer this matter with anything more than experientially-based disagreement.

2. Many other organizational factors also explain employee performance independent of employee engagement. Many of the influential determinants of employee behavior may be be more important than any employee attitude, belief, or disposition. For example, formal organizational policy exerts considerable influence on employee behavior. Similarly, organizational objectives, as interpreted by immediate supervisors have perhaps the most robust influence over employee decision-making and behavior. The truth of the matter is that empirical evidence, as I am aware of it, does not yet speak to the relative import of employee engagement on organizational performance relative to other structural and psychological factors.

So what then, is the point of these blog posts? My first objective was to set the tone for my column on organizational science. Our principles and theories exist not simply in the minds of academics and on the pages of our journals. Our theories can have a measurable impact on the health and success of living, breathing organizations. Sometimes our insights are best understood when embedded within real stories. I will attempt to do just that at every opportunity. If any of my readers ever encounter a puzzling scenario, I would love to tackle it on this forum… I won’t even charge you (much) .

My second objective for these posts was to illustrate the complexity of understanding organizational phenomenon. It is so terribly easy to over-simplify the nature of organizational challenges. I experienced this myself and I fully expect to feel many time over the course of my career. When crafting the single-page executive summary for a 58 page report for non-initiated executives, or when crafting pretty, colorful and simple models in a roomful of marketing people, it is easy to dumb it down. If the invaluable impact organizational science can bring to bear on organizations is to be realized, we must make certain to understand organizational phenomenon within their natural context.

In short, it is all too easy to say a phenomenon is an “engagement problem” because a departmental unit has lower than expected engagement survey results. Real organizations are seldom that simple. Real organizations are exciting, dynamic and often barely-contained chaotic in nature. Anyone proposing a simple, “silver bullet” as the answer to an organizational challenge either has incomplete understanding of organizational dynamics and human psychology, or has a vested interest in the promotion of “re-branded snake oil.”

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~ by George Guajardo on June 22, 2009.

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