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Employee Engagement—Seeing the Light

Lessons of the “Autopsy” 

Jathan Janove

As a labor and employment law litigator for 25 years, I made a living from employee disengagement, earning an advanced degree in organizational dysfunction. I began my career representing employees who sued employers. Later, I switched to representing management. Thus, depending on your point of view, I either saw the light . . . or was drawn to the Dark Side.

Whether on the side of the employee or management, the story was the same. A relationship that began with high hopes and expectations degenerated into one of frustration, mistrust, pain, loss, and, ultimately, an employee’s desire for revenge.

Although my business card said “Attorney at Law,” I often felt more like a medical professional—the one who dons a lab coat, gloves, and mask, takes scalpel in hand, and makes an incision on the victim’s chest, looking for what did him in and why. My “autopsies” were on “terminal employment relationships,” ones that got sick but nobody knew how to treat. Or the employer administered treatment that only made things worse.

From 25 years of such autopsies, I’ve extracted lessons to help employers not only avoid this scenario but improve their return on investment in the people they employ. This leads us to what I call, “employee engagement.” I approach the topic by beginning with its opposite. You see, over the years, I’ve encountered two types of employees, one I call “engagement,” the other “transactional.” The former is important for long-term organizational success. The latter is rooted in short-term “what have you done for me lately” thinking.

The Transactional Employee

The transactional employee reduces the relationship to a simple bargain: “I do my job; you pay me.” Technically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with this arrangement. The employer-employee relationship is, after all, rooted in contract. Employees put in their time. In exchange, employers pay the agreed-upon rate.

The problem lies in the beginning of the transactional employee’s formulation—the first person pronoun. Similar problematic words include “my,” “me” and “mine” (similar to the Beatles song.)

Very often, a transactional employee defines how “I do my job” in a way displeasing to his or her employer, such as:

  • I decide what my job is and what it isn’t;
  • I feel like doing some job duties but not others; and
  • I know what other employees are “getting away with.”

In short, the transactional employee is essentially “I-centered.” This type of employee can be a master of self-justification (“I know what’s best”); an excuse machine (“It’s not my fault because . . .”); a turf-protector (“That’s my job!”); a finger-pointer (“That’s your job, not mine!”); a “but” apologist (“I’m sorry but . . .”); a privileged class member (“I am entitled to . . .”); or an opportunist (“Since the cat’s away, this mouse is going to play.”)

The Engagement Employee

By contrast, the engagement employee starts with you and ends with us. This employee wants to know the terms of the engagement and asks questions like:

  • What are your goals and priorities?
  • How can I help us accomplish them?
  • Are there any problems needing solutions?
  • Are there any opportunities needing action?

The relationship is a term of engagement as opposed to an exchange of time for pay. Although these employees need paychecks too, work goes beyond the simple contractual exchange. It includes a sense of purpose, making a difference, and feeling valued.

An engagement employee approaches his or her job like a good doctor approaches the protection of your health, like a good investment advisor approaches the protection of your financial assets, or like a good computer consultant approaches the protection of your sanity. Think of the vendors or contractors you’d enthusiastically recommend to others. I bet they helped you define your needs, and then figured out how best to apply their skill, talent, and experience to achieving your goals.

Question:  How many transactional employees does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Answer:  I don’t know, either. 

However, I do know that it takes a lot more transactional employees than engagement employees. Plus, if engagement employees are putting in the bulbs, you’re far less likely to have flickering lights because they’re in too loose, and you’re far less likely to short-out your system because they’re jammed in the sockets. Moreover, you may find out from engagement employees that your business would be better off if you used a different bulb.

So who’s putting in your light bulbs?

Next week’s blog: “What You Can Do to Move Employees Up the Engagement Scale” by Jathan Janove. Jathan is a shareholder in the Portland office of Ogletree Deakins. Follow him on Twitter.

July 12, 2012 | TAGS: , , , .