Why Employee Engagement Is Not a Two-way Street

A relationship is often described as a two-way street. Both parties engage in a fair and equal exchange in order to sustain the relationship while drawing mutual benefit from it.

Business leaders tend to think of employment relationships in this conditional sense. An employer pays its employees wages in return for their labor. It’s a simple economic exchange that reflects a transactional view of relationships as two-way streets; each side giving and taking.

The quid pro quo model holds up until the concept of employee engagement is introduced into the mix. Leaders who hope to capture the holy grail of employee engagement, discretionary effort, but still view the relationship as a two-way street will find it nearly impossible to engage their employees. That’s because employee engagement requires employees to feel inspired rather than obligated. Engagement happens when an employer creates a work experience that’s inspirational for employees.

If leaders were to apply the conditional relationship approach to their employee engagement strategy, they would gain no traction at all.

Here’s how it would look in practice:

“We’ll pay you a fair wage, but only if you work extra hard to earn it.”

“We’ll give you the tools you need to do your job, but only if you generate plenty of revenue to offset the cost.”

“We’ll support your career and personal development, but only if you give us a substantial return on our investment.”

“We’ll inspire you with a clear vision for our company’s success, but only if you agree to never question us or tell us what we need to change.”

“We’ll treat you like a competent and trustworthy adult, but only if you conform to our ideal of how employees should think and work.”

“We’ll promote work-life balance, but only if your life is balanced in favor of the organization.”

“We’ll recognize and reward your efforts, but only if you consistently exceed our stratospheric expectations for performance.”

“We’ll provide opportunities for advancement, but only if you jump through every hoop we tell you to.”

“We’ll value you as a unique human being, but only if you add value as predictable human capital.”

There’s nothing inspirational about working for an employer who turns the most basic elements of a positive employee experience into a series of transactions. Employees won’t want to go above and beyond for a leader who will only treat them well if the company’s needs are met first.

Look back over the nine statements above. Now remove everything from ‘but’ onward and add this instead:

“…because we want you to feel inspired and proud working here. We want you to help us make this an amazing place to work, and to let us know how we can get even better.”

You see, employee engagement isn’t transactional. It’s inspirational. It’s a virtuous circle that begins and ends with leadership. Leaders set the tone and strategy for their organization, hire the best people for the right roles, treat them well, give them the tools and support to develop and become leaders in their own right, and the cycle continues. Employees feel inspired to go above and beyond for an organization that cares about them, and they provide honest feedback along the way for areas needing improvement. Leaders then implement changes to create a more engaging employee experience. Virtuous circle.

Therein lies the unique nature of employment relationships. Leaders need employees to be committed to the organization, but they must first build that commitment with a great work experience.

And that’s no two-way street. It’s inspirational leadership through and through.

About the author: Jonathan D. Villaire is a bridge-builder, truth-teller, and advocate for empathy who helps leaders understand how to effectively engage their employees and, more importantly, how to stop disengaging them. He founded Cognize Consulting with the aim of giving supervisors, managers, and executives a new perspective on employee engagement: See employees as human beings, not as human capital. Understand how to create an employee experience that increases retention and attracts top talent. Engage employees with a leadership mindset of empathy, curiosity, and humility. He is a speaker, coach, blogger, and author of the upcoming book The Stepford Employee Fallacy: The Truth about Employee Engagement in the Modern Workplace.

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