ICology: changing the terms on employee engagement

Episode 32, Mike Klein with Changing The Terms

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Mike Klein is the principal of Changing The Terms and author of "From Lincoln to LinkedIn: the 55 Minute Guide to Social Communication." Mike has always been outspoken about some of the takes on employee engagement and wrote a thought-provoking post on LinkedIn. In the post, he outlines six forms of engagement.

In this episode of ICology, Mike reviews these six forms of engagement, a few of which communicators might have viewed as disengagement in the past. In addition, we talk about the role internal communications plays in the employee engagement debate. 


Episode Transcript

Chuck Gose: This is ICology, it's a podcast dedicated to interesting people doing interesting things in the world of internal communications. In this episode I have Mike Klein who is, "Changing the terms on employee engagement." If internal comms is your passion, then this is your podcast. Listen in. Hello I am your host of ICology, Chuck Gose, thanks for listening. This is the first post-birthday episode of ICology. On August 31st we turned 1 year old. Thanks everybody for the support over the last year. Look forward to the next year and many years to come.

I mentioned the guest today is changing the terms on employee engagement, and my take on this is right now there's so much stuff out there about employee engagement that I think we've lost some of the meaning behind it. This stuff out there often looks at engagement as this huge, giant topic that I've often talked about we've missed the mark on by dumbing it down to a single score. While engagement is important, I do think we're missing the boat on the conversation and what we're missing out on, in my opinion, is the personal element of engagement.

We all have unique drivers that cause us to engage or disengage with our companies, our leaders, our coworkers. Mine, I know my personal drivers is the belief in senior leadership, relationship with my boss and overall pride for the company I work for. Those are my personal drivers, I think it's important for others to look at what motivates them, what drives them to engage. Again, all of this stuff creates a lot of noise and so I appreciate it when unique thoughts cut through the noise. That's why I have on today's show Mike Klein, the principle of changing the terms, Mike, welcome to ICology.

Mike Klein: Thank you very much and birthday greetings from Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

Chuck: Hey! Wonderful, thank you very much Mike. It's great to have you on the show, I got to touch base with you again at IABC World Conference this past June, it's always great seeing you. Knew then it was a mental cue to get you on the podcast and recently you wrote a post on LinkedIn that caught my eye called "The 6 Forms of Engagement", but before we get into that, I'm going to give you a chance to have a little healthy rant on a topic of employee engagement, so go for it.

Mike: All right, there's so much you can say about this topic and it's partially because there's so much that's being mashed into it. You have so many different words, so many different terms, so many different statistics, so many different pseudo statistics, all ground together in a single, almighty manageable score that internal comms folks, among others, are given a mandate in no uncertain terms to deliver or else. I would probably say that ultimately for internal communicators and for the internal communication profession, the whole concept of employee engagement has been a double-barrel disaster. On the one hand you have a bunch of really good people being forced under extreme pressure to deliver something which doesn't really exist, and on the other hand, our failure in delivering that diminishes our credibility when it comes to the real meat of business, aligning people, driving outcomes and enlivening and enabling strategy and ultimately driving real results and real performance.

Chuck: In the headline of the post, you talk about optimizing instead of pressurizing. What do you mean by this?

Mike: It actually takes the concept of employee engagement and dissects it from 2 directions. First, the pressurization of employee engagement is really the pressurization on managers to deliver higher employee engagement scores. Often at the risk of their job if they're incapable of doing so on a more or less consistent basis. I've actually seen this in large, multi-national companies. It's really used as a weapon against managers who somehow haven't found the way to create happiness within a given culture.

Part of the reason why it's impossible to successfully pressurize employee engagement is there's so many types of factors which drive individuals engagement with the work they do, with the customers they have and with the organizations they work with. If you were to say, take 6 forms, or an old boss of mine suggested a 7th form, which is really around the fellowship angle with fellow employees, or other forms which may emerge from conversation. The fact is that people bring their own motivations and their own sense of competence and confidence to work. As a manager, it may be easier to be successful if you're getting the right mix of those attitudes and those drivers, rather than trying to drive all of them towards a single common score.

Chuck: Yeah, it reminds me, recently I had my car worked on and when the service technician was checking out another customer, they reminded the customer about a survey that was done and how grateful they would be if they gave them 5 stars for the service and then you know that, okay, there's incentives around getting those positive results. The shameful part is I've heard very much the same thing when it comes to management, especially these large companies whee they do the tout engagement scores, as you said, they sort of hold these numbers over managers. Managers will come up with a way to get the score they need to get, and what that means is basically whatever score they're promoting, whatever score they're reporting is largely inaccurate because they've gamed it, they've put other incentives in place for their employees and they're not even measuring engagement, they're measuring some other number that's out there.

Mike: Right, they're measuring employee compliance with the dictates of the boss, along with a bunch of other questionable factors. How they feel, did someone pay them a compliment last week? Was a question that somebody mentioned on a recent survey from somebody. There's the infamous Gallup 212, which asks about, "Do you have a best friend at work?" Which is a really good thing to have, but is that the ultimate driver of business performance? There's so much ambiguity and arbitrariness in the measures that make this magic figure up.

Chuck: I think that, a lot of this stuff that we've talked about, all this noise talks about the low engagement that's out there and no matter what statistic you look at, like you said, there's volumes of them out there touting low engagement. I thought it was interesting, there as a recent Harvard Business Review article called, "The Darkside of High Employee Engagement". I doubt a company would ever have 0%, though I guess it were a horribly run company maybe you'd have 0%, it'd probably be out of business, but you're also never going to have 100% and a lot of times when companies tout that they have, "We have 80% engagement. 90% engagement." I've accused them of having rainbows and unicorns on their corporate campus, it's just ... I don't see that happening. It was interesting to read this article around this darkside of high engagement. Do you think we're also facing some of this over-engagement approach? 

Mike: There's a number of ways to cut, chop and slice the Harvard article. The question you're asking, which I think is the most interesting, but really only one of about 3, is does having a bunch of people who are highly aligned with, say, an engagement figure that's really focused on organizational cohesion, as some of these employee engagement figures are, they're focused on cohesion rather than, say, individual actualization, if you will, that if they're all singing too loudly from the company hymnal they might not be listening to customers or from ideas in the marketplace. They may just not be able to hear them, or not want to hear them. That can create group think, insularity, etc. What I saw in the Harvard article was that this is not uncommon. You look at companies that have failed after positions of dominance. I would suspect that a lot of them fell into this category. Companies like Wang, companies like Kodak. At one point everybody's singing the company anthem with gusto at these places, but they lost track of what was going on in the world.

Chuck: Essentially the engagement caused the employees to almost be wearing blinders, essentially? Oblivious to what else was going on around them. 

Mike: Right, the employee engagement measure was really a measure of organizational insularity. 

Chuck: All right, we're talking to Mike  today and again, you wrote this great article about the 6 forms of engagement. We talked about all this noise and everybody looks at it as this one big topic, but I like that you've broken it up into pieces, identifying 6 forms of engagement. I want to work through each of these. The first one you mention is the engagement of the rifle.

Mike: There's a lot of talk in the engagement world about low engagement and disengagement, and that was what really prompted me to write the first version of this article more than 6 years ago, I never bought that idea. I thought that people who were angry and people who were indifferent were simply manifesting their degree of engagement in different ways. That's also why I went to the Webster definition of engagement, rather than a corporate comms or an HR definition of engagement. If you look at engagement, you look at the extent to which somebody is willing to participate, to involve themselves, to worry about, to express something towards another party.

The engagement of the rifle is really the pissed-off employee, the employee who feels betrayed, the employee who is still in their job, but is actively opposing the organization as a saboteur, as a foot-dragger, as a silent critic on glass door, or what have you. These people care. These people care enough to be upset and so there is some form of engagement that's in their, what other people would call, disengagement and the question is, can you fix the problem to bring these people back online?


Chuck: You bring up a really great point around, I guess the emotion of anger, and that's, I think a lot of people would say oh that's a sign of disengagement. I think you brought up a great point, that those people are very much engaged, that they are willing express disappointment or express anger or fear because they care about the results or they care about what's going on.

Mike: Yeah, these people are not lost, they just take a lot of effort to bring back and the organization has to decide whether they're worth the effort. That's a different thing than writing them off as disengaged.

Chuck: Which I think if you read again, a lot of this stuff that's out there, that's where they would typically get labeled. The next form that you wrote about is the engagement of the mat.

Mike: The engagement of the mat is my personal favorite, and I'm referring to a wrestling mat. The reason why I use the term mat and wrestling is because these people are often in active conflict with the organization, with it's values sometimes, with it's culture, with it's leadership, but not because they want to destroy the organization or defeat the organization. They actually want to move the organization to another level. These are your innovators, these are your agitators, these are the people who've got the deepest and proudest passion for the organization. They're the ones who are actually willing to take personal risks for the organizations benefit. These people aren't properly recognized or incentivized to do so, at least from an engagement perspective, because it doesn't recognize the particular type of engagement that they bring to the party.

Chuck: Yeah, they're probably seen as being very combative, I would imagine, within an organization.

Mike: Combative or irritating or special or, in a more positive sense, radical.

Chuck: Why do you think that's your favorite one?

Mike: It's the one that I personally throw myself into. Certainly in the time that I've been an employee in large organizations. I've always been coming up with new ideas, new processes and looking at what in the status quo could be done more effectively? That was the one in which I saw myself to the largest extent. Even now in the internal comms field, changing the terms is about engaging the field to improve what we do as practitioners and the outputs we produce for our organizations.

Chuck: The next form you talked about is the engagement of the gear shift.

Mike: Yes! The engagement of the gear shift is another form of engagement that isn't really recognized in the whole linear numerical employee engagement puzzle and in fact, it's downgraded to a large extent. There are a lot of people in this world who show up at work at 9, leave at 5, do a flawless job and go home and don't want to hear about work the moment they leave the office. They don't want the company newsletter in their inbox. They don't want to be told why the sustainability efforts are so great and noble. They want to simply be enabled to do their job without any friction and be able to leave without any friction. I would suspect that these are a plurality of the, certainly of the 6 types that I've, the 6 forms I've talked about, they're probably more of these people than there are anybody else. The world could not function without them.

Chuck: On the finance side of things I think you'll see a lot of this sort of gear shift engagement, where they want to come in, they'll do a great job, they'll do their job well, they love what they do, they love the company and then that's it.  

Mike: My initial vision was more the blue collar employees who do a ton of work without a lot of thanks, but the least that they want is a lot of ... Is to avoid a lot of friction.

Chuck: Let's talk about then the engagement of the artist.

Mike: I worked a lot with corporate IT folks over the years, both in the US and in Europe, and what I found is that you have a lot of people who go into IT because they want to do really, really great, innovative IT stuff. The biggest challenge that they have, that they face is being managed by managers who are much less interested in that, and more interested in delivering to their immediate objectives. It's a constant tug of war that these guys are facing. The main thing is these IT folks, I call them IT pre-Madonna's, I don't think any of them would deny it if I called them that to their faces.

They're not there to deliver 2.5% return on investment for the shareholder, they really do not care about that. They want to make sure that they're doing the most intricate, most interesting, most powerful stuff that they can come up with. There are a lot of employees out there like that and a lot of the talk about millennials, you see a lot of those threads in some of the popular conceptions of how millennials work. This is a completely different form of engagement then say, the more traditional blue collar gear shift-y type of doing the job and going home.

Chuck: This is more around I would think, what they're doing then who they're doing it for.

Mike: 150%. This is about being able to do what they want to do, ideally the way they want to do it.

Chuck: Then another form you talked about is the engagement of the hawk.

Mike: There's a lot of talk out there about the contingent workforce. People who are brought in for projects and leave fairly quickly. Consultants. There's a real mercenary-ness to this culture. These people want to succeed, get their money and go onto the next project. Their engagement is around achieving the success criteria and getting the money with a minimum amount of friction. Again, are you going to get a lot of impact out of sharing your sustainability strategy with these people?

Chuck: Yeah, they probably care very little about a corporate and social responsibility report that you would want to publish to them.

Mike: Exactly. Unless they saw that what they did was directly connected to it, and was being measured against some of the stuff that was in it. In which case, they would become extremely interested very quickly.

Chuck: Then the last form of engagement you talk about is the engagement of the ring. 

Mike: I chose that for a number of reasons, not just because of the marital piece, but also because of the Tolkien reference, that this is that which is exulted above all else. That what organizations push, and what often shows up as the numerical manifestation and engagement scores, is to have employees who are willing to make open-ended commitments of extraordinary effort in pursuit of the organizations success and then in parenthesis, with no actual extra commitment on the organizations part for them to do this. The engagement of the ring ultimately has become to get the employees to want to marry them, without necessarily saying "I do" themselves. We're in a world where lifelong commitment from employer to employee has all but disappeared, but the level of commitment that the employer is seeking from the employee has reached an even greater degree. So there's an imbalance there, which I think ultimately undermines the whole construct.

Chuck: I think you've given communicators honestly a brand new way of looking at, not just engagement as this big, again, giant topic, but people they might have looked at as disengaged, they think, "Okay, they were using a different definition for engagement," kind of like this ring engagement you talked about. There are these other forms. What now? If a leader comes to a communicator, and I'm sure this happens all the time, and just says simply, "Let's improve engagement," what do they do? Where do you think they should start, if they haven't already started down a path?

Mike: The first thing I would do is say, "Do you want improved scores or improved outcomes?" If it's improved outcomes, then you start to look at how to optimize the forms of engagement that exist and then ideally map those out into the organizations outcomes. For example, if you're wanting to increase organizational speed, focus on appealing to people who are coming from a mat or a hawk perspective. People who are mercenaries and people who are really trying to innovate and make an immediate impact. If you're trying to focus on creating sustained customer relationships, then you use the rhetoric and the demographic of people who are more likely to be in that ring space.

The people who are more likely to be building sustainable, long term relationships with customers and looking at what kind of products and services will keep people over time. If you're trying to improve transactional customer service, then looking at people who are gear shift types, and getting them to see a bit more possibility in their relationship with the organization, so that it's not just simply run the cashier and get the money, but they have a role that they can play for creating a better experience and derive some benefit from creating that experience. That would be, and from a communications perspective, there's a whole layering of narrative storytelling, targeting of key influencers that you could do within this space to re-energize the whole engagement conversation. If they're talking about scores, resign. Start looking for another job. Seriously!

Chuck :No, I like it. I like it. What I think would be an interesting exercise, so looking at it not from the communicator standpoint, although I guess if the communicators are managers it'll apply, but as somebody who's managing a team of people and then you've got these 6 forms, it would be interesting if they could slot some of their employees into each of these 6 forms and typically, I doubt there would be people that would move from one ... You could see possibly somebody from the ring moving into one of the other ones or from one of other ones moving into the ring, but really probably those other ones, they'd probably stay pretty similar to that form.

If they could slot those people and then begin looking at what is the best way to understand their engagement further? Have those, again, going back to my very first point, having those very personal conversations, I think where we've lost this engagement topic is dumbing it down to a score, dumbing it down to this big, giant ball of stuff. Like you said, so many different terms, so many different data points, that I think really it comes down to this personal element of engagement that when companies understand that, then they will finally achieve what they think they are with this giant, big topic of employee engagement.

Mike: A few thoughts. If you were a manager, people magically ... Each member of your team fit into one of these categories, probably the 2 quickest conversations that would turn something would be the one with the gear shift guy and the other one with the rifle guy. The one with the rifle guy, you ask him, "What's wrong?" They'll tell you what's wrong and then you can see whether you can fix what's wrong. In which case, if you fix what's wrong the person moves out of the rifle space, into one of the other spaces. If not, then the person's got to go basically. 

Then you've got a spot that you can free up for something that's a little bit more regenerative. The 2nd one I'd have is with the gear shift guy, and really I'd try to create some possibility for the guy. What would it be like if work was more than just punching a keyboard, pushing a broom, pulling a lever? If you could provide that for them, or even better, have one of their colleagues help provide that for them, then that's a huge increase in your ... If you're looking at the quantitative side, that's a huge increase in your teams engagement score. Just by focusing on those two people, rather than trying to make all 6 equally happy. 

Chuck: Well and we know again you're never going to make everybody happy, but I think you've given people a unique way to look at these 6 forms, because it's not, you can't paint it with one big, broad brush. Like you just said, do you have a friend at work or not? Have you been paid a compliment at work? Did you get feedback from your boss that you liked? There's a lot of these questions that I think people view as engagement and I think you've dissected it into areas where they can look at the individual themselves and understand what engages or disengages that type of person. 

Mike: Right, and to look for classes of individuals who, if you're looking at a company of 50,000 and you're trying to improve the customer experience, where are you going to get the most traction most quickly with the least friction? It depends on the company, but if you can do a little bit of demographic clustering, you can target activities and also spend a lot less money then trying to engage the whole organization simultaneously.  


Chuck: What is a final piece of parting advice Mike you want to share with listeners? Most of the people that listen are internal communicators, some though are managers who want to learn more about the impact internal comms have, so with all your experience, what's some great advice you want to share with them?

Mike: Some advice about employee engagement, since that's the key topic of our conversation tonight, is that you are in a position to fundamentally shift this conversation from being a one-size fits all number that you have very little influence over, to being a portfolio of individuals and communities and attitudes that you have tremendous influence over. This is a conversation that if taken seriously, has potentially transformative impact for your job and for the profession. This has been a battle for 10 years, doing the same ... It's the old Einstein quote, "We can't get to the future by using the thinking from the past," trying to do employee engagement better the same way doesn't work. 

This is one alternative for doing it differently, that could have a potentially massive impact for a profession and for the people we work with. The piece I would have for internal communicators generally is that we have a number of issues that are providing us with a lot of frustration. Employee engagement being one of them. That we can have an impact by rethinking, by deconstructing and by starting over, rather than just simply by trying to do the same thing over and over again, perhaps with better technology. That's really what changing the terms is all about, it's about changing the words that we use, and changing the rules of the game by doing so.

Chuck: Well and when I speak at events, people know that I'm a big fan of zombies and one of the stories I like to share with people is if you really look at it zombies, if you believe in them, are truly the most engaged creatures on the planet. Or one of the most engaged figures on the planet, they're after one thing, they're focused on that one thing and so they are engaged, but you would probably argue they're not engaged in the right things. I think a lot of times companies, where they think they are measuring engagement, they might be, but I think they're looking at the wrong type of engagement. That's why I like that you've given these 6 other forms to where people can understand maybe something that they thought was disengagement once before, is in fact now engagement, it's just been mis-characterized over the last decade.

Mike: Exactly.  Engagement is not a linear concept and when it's treated as linear concept it becomes either meaningless or warped. I think what we have the opportunity to do is to bring some perspective back to this conversation and then bring some innovation to the way it gets resolved.

Chuck: Mike, if someone wanted to get in touch with you, what's the best way for them to reach out?

Mike: Best way to reach me is through my blog/website which is www.changingtheterms.com. That's easily the best way to get ahold of me.

Chuck: Then also I recommend reading the site, I recommend connecting with Mike on LinkedIn, on Twitter. Always a great resource, Mike it's been a joy having you on the show. I knew you'd share your insights without any filter around the engagement topic. I think it is time that we have to begin silencing some of that noise a little bit, having those real conversations, having a real talk about what impact can employee engagement have beyond a statistical score that leaders like to be proud of, and have it make real difference. I think you've given the listeners and communicators a great new way to look at their organization, look at the employees, and then begin thinking a little more strategically about how they begin addressing some of these 6 forms.

Mike: Thank you very much for that and thank you for the opportunity to have a chance to talk about these ideas. Not just with you, with somebody who actually understands the whole issue that we're dealing with here, but also with the people out there who are in the trenches who are really out to try to make a difference. I'm talking about my fellow internal communicators out there.

Chuck: Mike, I want to thank you for being a guest here, sharing your thoughts. ICology has a home for those that don't know, you can now visit learnicology.com to catch up on old episodes, get to know the guests better, read blog posts, check out events, even episode transcripts are there if you want to go back and read an episode instead of listening to it. You can also follow ICology on Twitter @learnicology to pick up show announcements as well as other internal comms news. If you're not already a subscriber, you can listen to ICology on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you like what you hear, leave a review, they mean a lot to me. If internal communications is your passion, ICology is your podcast. Thanks for listening in.