At What Point Do You Throw in the Towel on Engagement?

Can you believe there was a time in medical history when medical practitioners didn’t wash their hands? When cleanliness wasn’t a “best practice?” True story.

Washing hands wasn’t a routine issue back in the mid-1800s. The idea of washing hands came about because of the studies of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis. I’m sure many of you have heard the story but for those who haven’t…

dr semmelweisDr. Semmelweis worked at a maternity clinic in Vienna. He was interested in why things happened – medically speaking of course. One of the things he wanted to explore was the number of deaths in the maternity ward from something called puerperal fever (childbed fever.)

Being a good Doctor and a man of data he started to compare outcomes from two different wards – one run by Doctors and med students and another by midwives. The Doctor assisted births had 5 times the death rate than those by midwives. Step one: documented the differences in practice. Step Two – transfer those practices and save lives. Sounds simple, right?

First – Doctors had women give birth on their back – midwives on their sides. He made that change to the Doctors’ process – no effect.

Second – in the Doctors’ ward whenever someone died a priest would walk slowly through with an attendant ringing a bell. Semmelweis theorized the priest and the bell ringing so terrified the women after birth that they developed a fever, got sick and died (I know, I know. Not making this up.) So they stopped that. No effect.

Third – he noticed a doctor had died from the same fever as the women after cutting himself during an autopsy. Autopsies were something all the Doctors and medical students did. But the midwives didn’t. He figured the particles from the cadavers were the culprit so he had the Docs wash their hands with chlorine to stem the transfer of germs. VIOLA! The death rate dropped precipitously.

Side note… chlorine is a wonderful disinfectant – but it was only accidently chosen as Dr. Semmelweis used it to remove the smell from cadaver-tainted hands more than for the germs.

The moral of the story?

Sometimes the evidence you think is the cause isn’t the real cause.

Employee Engagement

We’ve been running engagement activities for 10 years. Results have not changed. Let me say that again. Results have not changed. We’ve added many new theories and ideas. We’ve done many more studies and experiments. We’ve tried almost everything (almost.) Yet still seem to be solving the problem with evidence that doesn’t have an effect. That’s not an opinion – that is the data from consultants and the survey companies.

In effect we are still trying to solve the childbed death problem by having birthing mother lie on their sides.

So I ask… when do we say we’ve trod this avenue too many times with zero success and start looking for new causes?

I’ve been working in the incentive, reward and recognition industry for more years than are polite to talk about in public. I’ve watched (and participated) in the application of a variety of tools to address engagement. In some cases, to great success. In others – not as much. I’ve witnessed the application of identical programs and interventions at multiple companies with varying degrees of success.

In other words – I’ve been part of the story where we’ve identified the problem, searched for solutions, prescribed those solutions and watched as patients improved or got worse in random ways. There is little “evidence” that any prescription we’ve tried is universally effective. There are anecdotes and small-scale studies that provide directional information and ideas – but nothing horribly concrete that say – THIS will CAUSE THIS.

I know there will be a bunch of providers who do their “research” to show their solution set and philosophy creates the outcomes we all want. I’d argue we have a lot of “polls” and “surveys” that have data – but little real research you can take to the bank. Again that whole causal/correlation bugaboo we love to hate. Sorry – lack of evidence doesn’t make an opinion right – just unproven.

Are all of us who focus on helping companies address employee [and other audience] engagement stuck in a rut?

Are we focused on stopping the Priest and the bell ringing when we ought to be looking for other solutions?

I only ask because for 10 years we’ve been doing the same thing with no results.

Maybe it is time to wash our hands of the existing thinking and start with a new premise?


3 responses to “At What Point Do You Throw in the Towel on Engagement?”

  1. Interesting question, Paul, and fascinating analogy. As an industry/endeavor, I’m not sure engagement is much different than recognition and reward, There will always be a need to engage people, just as there will always be a need to recognize and reward them (when appropriate). I’ve been at this even longer than you’ve been. Back before the “e” word become popular, I was helping managers learn how to gain “employee commitment” to marketing and organizational goals.

    Regardless of what it’s called, employees still require the tools and resources necessary to individually and collectively contribute to their organization’s success. Providing the necessities (including effective top-down, bottom-up and lateral communication; training and skill-building; recognition/acknowledgement/appreciation;support for internal and external customer-focus, etc.) are still critical. These management tools – or engagement tools – or whatever we call them – are still effective IF applied appropriately AND for the long haul by an organization’s leaders. IMHO, the lack of results come from executives and managers interested primarily in short-term fixes and results, and those who view employees/HR as commodities.


    1. I agree – we need those tools. I’m asking what causes engagement. None of those tools you mention have been proven to do that. Not saying we don’t need them – I think they address different issues. I’m suggesting that we’ve been pouring money and time into getting companies to use those tools based on the idea that using them will increase engagement. Companies bought into it and yet… 10 years on… no change.

      Maybe it isn’t those things that drive engagement. Maybe it is something fundamentally different. We still need training. We still need recognition. We still need good management. Just maybe not for engagement.


  2. Employees are responsible for their engagement as much as managers are responsible for creating a workplace where employees want to engage. You’ve said many times that engagement needs to be considered from the employee’s perspective. So what is it that affects employees’ attitudes about whether to engage: trust? meaningful work? respect for leadership? camaraderie? making a contribution? accomplishment? any combination or all of the above?

    The reality is we’re still transitioning from the industrial age of management control over employees to employees’ control over their involvement and fulfillment. Whatever the new and/or fundamentally different approach is, I look forward to it.

    Liked by 1 person

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