Even by the measure of the leading advocate for employee engagement, Gallup, employee engagement hasn’t moved the needle. As they wrote, “Employee engagement has barely budged in years.”

This is the second of a three-part series about why it failed and what comes next. The first post outlined the five core reasons for the failure and in this post, we explore the roots of the problem, the legacy mindset from earlier economic eras.

Employee engagement, while a major step forward in science and thinking, continued on a path set thousands of years ago in which work was defined as a necessary evil and where the line between management and employees was stark.

The History of Workplace Measurement

Thousands of years ago, there was no such thing as an employee or employer. People were nomadic and worked as families and small tribes to survive.

With the agrarian economy, the land was the source of power and wealth. It was what generated resources and those who owned land controlled society. Those who worked the land were serfs and slaves who had the option of working or starving. The power dynamic was absolute.

People began to move into cities with the rise of the industrial economy and capital and natural resources became the source of power. If you owned factories and distribution you were a captain of industry. Those that worked in the factories were able to move between jobs but had few rights and often worked long hours in horrible conditions. This lead to the birth of labor unions that created a powerful and disruptive voice for workers that threatened the captains of industry.

Job satisfaction emerged as a tool after the rise of unions to try to understand the state of a workforce and predict when a labor union might strike and disrupt production. If you kept employees satisfied enough you knew that they would likely not cause trouble and when satisfaction dipped you knew you had to make changes to avoid a strike.

A major change occurred with the rise of the information economy – people became the most valuable resources to companies. Knowledge workers were creating the most profitable products, not the land or factories. Hiring and retaining the best people became the key to financial success and executives realizes they needed to maximize the output of these new workers.

Employee engagement emerged as a new tool for management to maximize the value of human resources, many of whom were salaried and not hourly. Employee engagement is a measure of discretionary effort – how much effort does someone give beyond the minimum required? In other words, it is a measure of the amount of free labor and effort get beyond what you pay for as an employer.

This latest measure was doomed from the start, not because of what it measures, but the historical context and frame from which it emerged. It continued a pattern of tension between management and employees and treated work as undesirable part of our lives instead of something we need to be fulfilled.

But, what if we thought about work differently?

What if instead of assuming work was a bad thing that people wanted to avoid we recognized that work is critical to our sense of purpose? And, what if we thought about measuring work from the perspective of the employee instead of management? What if we removed hierarchy from the measurement model?

In the next post in this series, we will explore how the science of purpose and the success of agile software development may have uncovered a way to break from this historic pattern and truly set people and organizations up to thrive.


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