"You should join us only if you fall in love with our company”, said the HR Head to a group of summer interns from premier business schools.
“I don’t think my exit should be considered as attrition; the company that I am leaving is very different from the company that I had decided to join” , said the OD Manager during his farewell.
I heard these statements quite some time ago. But they pop up in my mind whenever I think about employee engagement. The first statement (made by the HR Head), makes me think more about the appropriateness (or the lack of it) of the various metaphors used to describe employee engagement. The second statement (made by the OD Manager) makes me wonder who or what exactly is it that the object of employee engagement. Let’s explore these in a bit more detail in this post!
Employee engagement is a concept that is very popular these days as there is a significant amount of research that indicates the positive impact that employee engagement has on business performance. Yes, like many fashionable things, employee engagement often gets trivialized into (‘fun and games’) activities that misses its core (See ‘Employee engagement and the story of the sky maiden’ for more details). While there are many definitions of employee engagement, a ‘strong emotional connect’ that leads to ‘discretionary effort’ is the central theme in most of these definitions. Also, it is this ‘strong emotional connect’ that is the underlying factor in the two statements that we started this post with!
Let’s start with the statement of the HR Head. The metaphor he used (that of falling in love, in the romantic sense of the term ‘love’) has remarkable similarities with the ‘strong emotional connect’ that we found in the definition of employee engagement sense. Yes, this can lead to the employee putting in discretionary effort. The main problem is that people fall out of love, that too fairly quickly. Also, as we have seen earlier in ‘Appropriate metaphors for organization commitment’, metaphors that are used to talk about the ‘employer-employee’ relationship often create complications because a metaphor is not an exact comparison and hence inaccurate/misleading meanings & assumptions creep in into our understanding of the relationship. Falling in love can lead to attachment or even possessiveness which can be counterproductive (see ‘Passion for work and anasakti’). Also, if the employee falls in love with the organization (and the organization doesn’t fall in love with the employee), it can lead to an exploitative relationship.
Yes, there are other definitions of love, like the one Scott Peck uses in The Road Less Traveled ('the ability and willingness to extend oneself for the growth of another') that can lead to discretionary effort without the complications mentioned above. But, those types of love are not something that someone can 'fall into' as it requires aspects like a higher purpose and conscious decision-making. Of course, metaphors have tremendous rhetorical value and hence leaders are tempted to use them for ‘motivating’ the employees (Please see ‘The Power of carrot and stick’ for a discussion on if there is any difference between motivation and manipulation)
Now let’s come to the statement made by the OD Manager. Here the key issue is ‘what exactly is the ‘company’ that the OD manager was referring to when he talked about 'the company he joined' and 'the company that he was leaving'?’’ Is it the legal entity, is it the company brand , is it the products and product brands, is it the immediate manager, is it the team, is it the senior leaders, is it the CEO, is it the some higher purpose (other than making money) served by the company or is it the way get things get done in the company (culture)? So there are many possibilities and even more combination of these possibilities here.
If we examine the above list of possibilities, we will find that most them can change and that some of them do change frequently in many organizations these days. This also indicates that the loss of social capital/breaking of working relationships during reorganizations can have an adverse impact on employee engagement. Also, it is possible that the employee’s preferences/factors that engage the employee changes during his/her tenure in the organization. So there are many moving parts here, and that makes keeping the employee engaged quite challenging. Hence, employee engagement becomes a continuous activity and it requires a deep understanding and careful management of the evolution of the psychological contract!