Is It Possible for Your Employees to Be Too Engaged?
Employee engagement has become commonplace. It’s no longer the newest term in the neighbourhood.
In fact, it was first mentioned in a 1990 academic paper where the author described engaged staff as those who expressed or employed themselves in the work, and the disengaged as those who withdrew and defended themselves from it. They defined the personal self - the one who was engaged or disengaged - as consisting of some combination of physical, cognitive, and emotional components that people used as they fulfilled various roles in their jobs.
Since then, the concept of employee engagement has expanded considerably, though it has also taken on a certain ambiguity; that is, it has become one of those managerial terms that means pretty much whatever you want it to mean. If you ask ten people what employee engagement is or what it looks like, then you’re likely to get 10 different answers.
Whatever you think it means, it boils down more or less to the extent to which employees feel connected to their organisation, and that connection is rooted in the values and goals that they share with you.
One of the most interesting aspects of this concept is the emphasis that’s placed on employees. That is, it’s thought of in terms of employees being engaged, rather than the organisation. In other words, it’s not discussed in terms of organisational engagement.
Why is that?
One reason might be that employees are easier to qualify. Each employee can be considered as a separate entity, or collectively in terms of the smallest to the largest of groups. An organisation can’t be thought of that way. And so that means that there’s more scope for tweaking individual employee experiences.
Another way to say that it is that it’s possible for each employee to have a separate experience, whereas organisations cannot be subdivided in that way.
Them and us
This causes a problem. When you look at engagement in terms of one or the other, it divides rather than unifies. The old fashioned term was “them and us.” And the idea was that “it’s them that needs to change.” The need to engage or re-engage was in the court of the employees because it was thought that they were the ones who had disengaged. It was never because the organisation failed to stay that way.
It’s possible that such distinctions are purely semantical, though your experience probably tells you otherwise. When people start a new job, they tend to be enthusiastic about it. They want to do well, and they look forward to coming to work. Given a choice, most wouldn’t begin a new job if they didn’t feel that way.
At some point, however, that enthusiasm begins to wane.
Part of the reason is that the novelty wears off. People need to be challenged in their work, and as they get the hang of what they’re doing, that challenge diminishes or disappears altogether. But more often than not, the excitement turns into drudgery because the relationship with their supervisor sours. They find out the hard way that they can’t trust them, or that there’s favouritism, or something else that changes their opinion about them, and it’s in that sense that the organisation has disengaged its employees.
If employees felt engaged at the beginning and now they don’t, then it’s either because they moved away from the organisation, or the organisation left them. But it would be wrong to assume that a lack of engagement is always and only the fault of the individuals concerned.
It’s altogether too commonplace to find that many times, it’s the organisation that has changed. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they had been sailing under false colours from the beginning.
A case in point is the behaviour of a small group of people known as the elites who preach green policies to the world but fail to follow them themselves as they fly around the world in their private jets. They got away with it until some enterprising journalist pointed out their hypocrisy, and it’s that kind of double standard that so aptly illustrates how organisations become disengaged from their staff. They preach, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
Although this may seem like an extreme example, it’s relevant to the topic of this article, because when people are too engaged - when their emotional ties produce the strongest of loyalty to the organisation - then their enthusiasm can cloud your own performance.
How can that happen?
It can happen because their show of support can cause groupthink. According to Psychology Today, groupthink “occurs when a group of well-intentioned people makes irrational or non-optimal decisions spurred by the urge to conform or the belief that dissent is impossible.”
What happens in a political campaign? It could be for an MP or a union president.
A group of committed people suborn their own rational convictions or bona fide suspicions about an individual or a cause because to call into question anything that doesn’t feel right to them would be interpreted as disloyalty. You know yourself that it doesn’t take many people who support one thing to convince those who don’t want to be seen as dissenters, and so those that have doubts join the bandwagon. Once everyone is on-board, there’s no one to question decisions that any objective person would want to.
When people act on their emotions - how they feel - rather than on facts, it can send a different message. One form of emotion is enthusiasm. Enthusiasm for you or for what you’re doing can cause you to lose your objectivity, which then can hamper your performance.
There’s a story about a group of students who very nearly got their teacher to leave the classroom by expressing positive emotions the closer he got to the door, and negative ones when he moved away from it.
Groupthink causes consensus, too, even when it doesn’t make sense for it to exist.
Riots are started this way. So are insurrections and wars. It’s rooted in the emotions, and it’s why too much engagement can be a problem. In those situations, internal and external threats are discounted as of little or no importance.
In some cases, there will be those whose strength of conviction is such that they’ll leave the group rather than compromise.
This is rare. And that’s because people want to feel that they belong to the group. Isolation can be very lonely, and ostracisation can take a toll on even those with the strongest personalities.
Groups can give people a sense of purpose, too - something which few people seem to have nowadays. To be accepted by a group that has a strong reason to exist is often sufficient to attract new members, even when their values are different. Acceptance overrides objections.
How to prevent groupthink
How do you prevent groupthink?
Make it easy to object
One way is to make it easier for people to share their concerns. The leader or manager who shuts down anyone who disagrees is laying the groundwork for groupthink because only the courageous and articulate, or those who feel they have nothing to lose, will disagree.
Commend those who disagree with you
This takes humility to commend those who disagree with you, and not many in leadership positions have it.
When you admit to your peers and subordinates that an objection has merit, that sends a powerful message to everyone. It tells them that their voice matters, that it’s worth thinking something through, and then contributing to the discussion; that the decision isn’t as final as it may first appear.
It’s also worth commending those who disagree with you even if the objection has no merit. Doing so sends a signal that you won’t shut down or think stupid of those whose comments appear to be irrelevant or uninformed. And when you commend those who disagree, you validate the person who had the courage to speak out. That has the added benefit of bolstering the confidence of that person and others.
You want people who will stand up to you. The perils of “yes-men (and women)” are well documented. Groupthink results when everyone is too afraid to say anything to the contrary, but you can also get it by surrounding yourself only with those who agree with you.
Why not put someone on your team or hire an advisor that you know will consistently see things differently? It would be like having your own member of the opposition right there to help you to see another point of view.
Employees can be too engaged
It’s possible for employees to be too engaged, and that’s because so much of what makes them that way is felt. It’s an emotion. Anytime emotions are involved, the experiences that are associated with them can be very powerful.
You want your employees to be engaged - that is, to feel connected - with the work because when they are, it gives them purpose. They find meaning in what they do, and that motivates them to do more because it makes them feel more fulfilled. Too much engagement, however - the attitude of “my job, my office, my company”, right or wrong in imbalanced. And it’s that imbalance that contributes to the poor decisions made in a groupthink situation.
Imbalance leads to clouded judgement
When engagement becomes the be-all and end-all, then a different imbalance is created. Notwithstanding the shift towards groupthink, it can also cause leaders to make decisions that are less than ideal; that is, that it preserves engagement at the expense of being strategic.
It’s not always possible to do what’s best for the company and simultaneously do what the staff would like you to do, or even what you’d like to do for them. Financial constraints, for instance, can temporarily reduce or suspend training and development. It’s not that managers don’t want to send people on a course. Instead, it’s that they cannot afford to at the moment.
If engagement matters more to you than anything else, then you can expect that your judgement will be clouded as a result.
And there’s something else.
If you’re building the right culture in your organisation, then the likelihood of groupthink will be less so. That’s because people will feel free to disagree. Discussions will be open. Diverse opinion will be encouraged.
Imbalance doesn’t just cause judgement issues with you or your peers. It may also cause problems within the ranks of the staff as well.
For instance, suppose you’ve set up a scheme such that if everyone works their shift for a certain number of days, they’re paid a bonus. If one or more employees are genuinely sick, then they’ll be loathed to take time off because not only will they deprive themselves of the extra money, they’ll prevent others on their team or in their shift from getting it.
A situation like this will produce groupthink. It will stifle the opinions of dissenters, no matter how legitimate their objections are.
A common cause of industrial accidents is fatigue. Workers can’t keep pushing themselves without getting proper rest and, if they’re sick, then they need to feel that they can take time off without penalising themselves or anyone else. It’s not worth losing your finger or your life, but peer pressure to come to work even when you’re tired endangers you and your colleagues. Such work policies shouldn’t be allowed.
It’s vital that that you as a leader, manager, or even a bottom of the chart employee don’t create or support policies that discourage disagreement and encourage groupthink, because when you do, you lay the groundwork for disproportionate and inappropriate engagement. Some mechanism needs to be in place so that anyone can point the finger at this problem without fear of reprisal.
Will you be the one to introduce it?