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What Would Make Your Own Job Better?

Thinking up employee engagement ideas for the Employee Engagement Council I am on.

— IT Business Analyst

Recently, we talked about shitwork and what makes it so. Often, it's not the work itself, but the way it is managed that turns people off and breeds disengagement. We've also talked about things like on-the-job learning, creative freedom, and appreciation to shake up the routine and help people emotionally connect with the work they do.

However, as I go through the Biggest Challenges at Work, I see a number of companies who still think they can have their employee engagement on the side, so to speak. Leave everything as is, spray some Febreeze in the air, and see if people stop holding their noses and start working with both hands.

This kind of creative employee-engagement thinking is very popular today. I know this because I've published an e-book, called 49 Employee Engagement Ideas, and it is going like hot cakes. The forty-nine ideas are just that—a brain dump of stuff that probably won't hurt you. Imagine, all kinds of people willing to read through pages of highly questionable advice from someone they'd never heard of.

By the way, I am not just talking about my e-book. The Internet is chock-full of employee engagement lists, tips, hacks, cheats and tricks that may or may not have ever worked for anybody. One thing is for sure: the searches are not slowing down.

Today's challenge comes from an analyst whose company decided to do something about employee engagement. Something less off-the-wall than looking for ideas on the Internet. They created an Employee Engagement Council, so that their own employees could tell them what they needed. Each department nominated a representative. Some declined because they were on too many councils already. And some enthusiastically accepted. Next, the Council solemnly convenes in the big conference room—and this is where it gets off-track.

Instead of talking about their own problems, the council members discuss other people and their hypothetical reasons for slacking off. Consequently, the action item is to come up with ideas, and our IT Business Analyst gets stuck with it. He doesn't actually have any ideas. So, he does what he's done since middle school whenever he didn't know the answer: he googles it.

Now, this wouldn't be so bad if, while fishing for employee engagement online, he, at least, found some for himself. That is, if he felt excited and energized by his task. But that's not what's happening.

How do I know?

Well, I don't know this for a fact, but it's a pretty good guess, assuming what he said is true. Who would call looking for a few crummy employee engagement ideas his "biggest challenge at work?" Someone who doesn't want to do it. And why doesn't he? Take a look at his title. When he got this job (I am guessing not so long ago), he was told he'd be analyzing businesses and creating IT solutions. Instead, he got "volunteered" for the Employee Engagement Council.

Incidentally, the council could be dealing with legitimate business problems and IT applications. But how do I know that this is not happening either? Because he is searching the Internet all by himself with no sense of direction, just so he can cross this employee-engagement item off his list.

I hope other council members are talking to actual employees about their concerns. In the meantime, our IT Business Analyst doesn't seem to be making any headway in the business of engaging employees. In fact, the council may be compounding the problem by taking employees away from their assigned duties and sending them on a wild goose chase.

Let's go back to the root of the problem. Why are these people not discussing their own engagement? For example, why is our IT Business Analyst not writing down a list of things that would make his job better? Does he have particular interests or ambitions? Does he have access to important people for mentorship and advice? Would he like to organize his workplace differently? Does he care about health, environment, or social issues? And does his workplace support his values?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions. But let me, again, state the obvious. In order to talk about my engagement, I have to admit that it's an issue. My issue. I have to shine the spotlight on myself, and I have to come up lacking. Our council members chose not to go there, at least not in their official capacity. It's hard to imagine these same employees not bitching five times a day about everything from management to toilet paper. But as soon as they are asked to do something about it, it becomes somebody else's problem.

What's going on here? Two things.

One, these people don't feel safe discussing their real needs at work. They are used to pretending that everything is just fine with them, personally. They say what the manager wants to hear. They do things that don't make any sense to them. Want to talk about culture? This is culture.

Two, even those who dare show their real face to the management, don't believe it changes anything. They don't believe that management cares about their needs. They don't think the Employee Engagement Council is about them because nothing ever is about them.

Can you blame them?

Finally, what can you do about employee engagement at this company? If you are a first-year IT Business Analyst slash Employee-Engagement Council member, realistically—not much. However, there are people in the company who can do a lot. Like the person who came up with the idea of the council in the first place. Or the person who gave it his lofty approval. Top management, in other words.

If a manager wants people to talk about what bothers them at their jobs, he could start with himself. The CEO could get up in front of the company and say, "Hey, I really hate this constant pressure from the Board to cut costs. It makes me want to shut down my email and go home to my cat." That would change the culture. Instantly. This is something I know first-hand. Not that I have a board or a cat, but being honest with people about pressures I am facing has helped me make sure they speak their minds around me.

The other part is letting them know I am willing to help. Of course, you have to do it with your actions, not just words. Then your people will know you care. Even when you choose not to honor their wishes.

Do I read employee-engagement trick lists on the Internet? As a matter of fact, I do. And I even follow some of what I read. And it occasionally works. But I don't think that it's the tricks themselves that work. It's why I use them.

If your people know you care about them—and are not just using a moronic trick to manipulate them—then go ahead and use the moronic trick. They will love it. Otherwise, well, you can start an employee engagement council and have them search the Internet...


If you like smart ideas then you might like my book, because, while researching it, I've stumbled on many brilliant ideas. (I found a few dumb ones too, but I didn't put them in.)

Tim Eisenhauer
Written by Tim Eisenhauer

Tim is president and co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.

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