A horse walks into a bar, and the bartender says…… ‘why the long face’?

Of all the jokes in the world, this is one which keeps popping up in my mind.   Not because it is any good, but because I am often exposed to situations which remind me of it.

What am I talking about?   

Many times over the last decade or so I have walked into a company’s office and felt like asking that very question to people walking around the office or sitting at their desks.   Whether it be a frown instead of a smile, a slow shuffle instead of a brisk walk, constant complaints as opposed to a positive outlook,  this long face can unfortunately become contagious.

But hang on, aren’t all organisations doing this thing called employee engagement?  After all, it is the hot HR topic right now.

I have recently been reading a lot about employee engagement – articles from all around the world, so much information that it would take me many blog posts to summarise all of the theory.

And only a few weeks ago I attended a webinar about employee engagement, and one of the questions that came up at the end was about whether it was possible to engage someone who didn’t want to be engaged.   Great question.

The problem with employee engagement as an overarching goal is that the tail can accidentally start to wag the dog.   Lets use an example.  Company X decides that they want to do an employee survey to find out how engaged their team members are.  They do the anonymous survey, and discover that there is a wide discrepancy between the results of different teams.  In other words, a head ache.  Which priorities should they focus on?  Should they start with the company-wide issues first, or attack the problems at the division, department or team level?  It can open a rather messy can of worms.

I have seen companies attempt to fix every single problem in order to keep team members happy, only to discover the next time the survey is completed that other issues have surfaced, and there has not necessarily been any improvement with the existing issues.

If managed incorrectly, this can lead to a very common reaction to new initiatives from long-serving team members –  “here we go again”, and “I wonder how long this one will last”.  And this becomes particularly troublesome when, once the dust settles, it turns out that the loudest voices were actually the long faces, those people in the organisation who just simply won’t be engaged.

For me, the most important aspects of engagement are alignment, and clarity.  Having everyone singing from the same hymn book, to coin a phrase.  A clearly communicated strategy, and then enabling a clear understanding of how a department, team and person’s daily activity fits into the overall company strategy, is vital.  It should also be central to all hiring and staffing decisions.

The long face may never become engaged with the company strategy, no matter how hard a company tries.  The ripples that can come from just one person who isn’t aligned with the company’s goals can be potentially devastating, and very very costly.  The trick is to identify what ‘engagement’ looks like for those who want to be part of the clearly communicated strategy and goals.

Employee engagement is extremely important, and employee surveys are an extremely valid instrument for collecting the data.  Just be aware that sometimes, there are long faces whose anonymous negativity could be spoiling the party for everybody.

Jason Buchanan – General Manager – Insights & Innovation


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