Employee engagement, as it has commonly been measured, has failed to improve work. Even Gallup, the leading advocate admits that “employee engagement has barely budged in years.”

We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars measuring and addressing employee engagement with little to show for it.

Employee engagement is a measure of discretionary effort – the amount of effort someone gives beyond the minimum required. In other words, it is a measure of the amount of free labor and effort you get beyond what you pay for as an employer. Today, it is the dominant measure of workplace health.

Why has it failed?

  1. Engagement Isn’t Human. Engagement is a term that comes from the same thinking that brought us the term “human resources”. Engagement isn’t something we naturally seek or want as humans – much less making a discretionary effort. We want to make an impact, have great relationships and to grow. We want to be fulfilled not engaged.
  2. Assumes Work is Bad. Employee engagement frames work as something bad and to be avoided. As one executive shared with me, the goal is to “make work suck less.” This is a continuation of the old mindset which sets up work as an antagonist – not the source of deep fulfillment and impact it can be in our lives.
  3. Hierarchical. Employers largely see employee engagement as something that management does to employees. You need to engage your team. It is a hierarchical frame that gives no accountability to the employee to own how they decide to show up. As a result of the hierarchical frame, engagement is often viewed as an entitlement and doesn’t empower people to own their success. My work isn’t engaging. My manager doesn’t engage me.
  4. Engagement Weaponized. Engagement has become a measure of the effectiveness of a manager. This has made it something managers fear and turned it into a weapon to criticize managers. One manager recently shared with me that employee engagement is lowest during the annual engagement season.
  5. Static. In most organizations, engagement is measured way too infrequently to be useful. Measuring work every year or even every quarter is way too infrequent to enable effective change. It doesn’t create a short enough feedback loop to act and learn from those actions as individuals.

This post is part of a three-part series on how we need to radically change the way we measure work. The second piece will explore the origins of workplace measurement and how that set employee engagement up to fail. The final piece will explore how agile software development and the science of purpose could provide the insights needed to change how we measure work.

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