Employee Engagement: Management Snake Oil Won't Help

The keys to motivated workers are resources, clear priorities and feedback. So before worrying about gamification, let's focus on organizational fundamentals.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

June 19, 2013

4 Min Read

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The notion of employee engagement is all over the news, as organizations such as Gallup, Dale Carnegie and Badgeville tell us how to herd cats. Yes, keeping employees engaged with their work and one another is a challenge, particularly with knowledge workers, but before we try to fix the problem with gamification and other trendy approaches, we need to get back to some workplace and organizational fundamentals.

What do we mean by engagement? According to Gallup, an engaged employee will "work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company" as well as "drive innovation and move the organization forward." A disengaged employee is "sleepwalking through their workday, putting time -- but not energy or passion -- into their work" while the worst kind "undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish." In Badgeville's latest employee-motivation infographic, the gamification/behavior-modification company cites a variety of data and industry sources to document the sorry state of employee engagement:

-- 71% of employees aren't engaged. (Gallup).

-- Only 10% look forward to going to work every day (Maritz Institute).

-- Only 19% are satisfied with their jobs (Manpower).

-- Highly engaged employees are 26% more productive than those who aren't, and their companies earned 13% greater returns over a five-year period (Watson Wyatt WorkUSA).

Not cited by Badgeville, Gallup also notes a significant increase in earnings per share (147%) among the companies in the top decile of engagement. And according to Dale Carnegie's own employee-engagement infographic, 80% of employees who are dissatisfied with their direct supervisor and 70% of employees who lack confidence in senior leadership are also disengaged employees.

More money doesn't make people more engaged.

-- 71% of employees say the most meaningful recognition they've received has no dollar value (Cindy Ventrice, author of the book Make their Day: Employee Recognition That Works).

-- 79% of employees who quit their jobs cite lack of appreciation as the main reason (Society for Human Resource Management).

According to our own InformationWeek IT Salary Survey research, the five job factors that matter most to IT managers have nothing to do with compensation. Those job factors are their opinion and knowledge are valued; they're involved in setting company strategy and determining goals; their job is important to company success; their job is challenging; and they relate to the company culture and values.

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Back to those workplace and organizational basics I referred to earlier. To understand what I'm talking about, consider two different archetype IT organizations, one at Abundance Corp. and the other at Overlord Industries.

At Abundance, all IT employees have most of what they need to do their jobs: resources, clear priorities, feedback, mission focus. They're able to plan their work and then work on their plan, adjusting along the way.

At Overlord, IT employees are always under siege. When one thing breaks, they go into firefighting mode, and just as they return to their station, the fire alarm rings again. There are no clear priorities; therefore, everything seems to be a priority … so nothing is a priority.

Overlord doesn't give its IT organization enough people or money in the first place, and because no organization can possibly resource "all priorities," what few resources it has seem like even fewer. Planning is a fantasy. Feedback is a joke, along the lines of: "Can't you just juggle 10 balls at a time?"

The lack of workplace basics, in my observation, is rooted in outmoded ideas about power and authority, rooted in bureaucratic organizational structures that have been around since the 1800s. Once your organization (and note that I'm not saying IT organization, but the overall organization) tackles those basics, the rest is relatively easy. No management snake oil needed.

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Feldman

CIO, City of Asheville, NC

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human resources management. Asheville is a rapidly growing and popular city; it has been named a Fodor top travel destination, and is the site of many new breweries, including New Belgium's east coast expansion. During Jonathan's leadership, the City has been recognized nationally and internationally (including the International Economic Development Council New Media, Government Innovation Grant, and the GMIS Best Practices awards) for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology.  He is active in the IT, startup and open data communities, was named a "Top 100 CIO to follow" by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America's book, Beyond Transparency. Learn more about Jonathan at Feldman.org.

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