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7 Myths About Employee Engagement

rodd-wagner.jpgBy Rodd Wagner

The field of employee engagement has taken a beating in the last decade. The Great Recession, mass layoffs, misuse of engagement data, wide dissemination of news about companies that did their employees wrong, decreasing levels of trust, and unavoidable transparency through sites such as Glassdoor have changed the equation.

These shifts have left a number of myths about engagement in their wake. Below are seven of the most common ones.

Myth 1: Employees want to be engaged.

No, they don’t. Engagement – usually defined as some form of working hard and planning to stay – is something the company wants. Employees are quite willing to bring that mindset to work for the right employer, but engagement has never been their goal. Instead, employees want to be happy at work.

Myth 2: High marks on the employee engagement survey show that an employee is loyal.

Maybe; maybe not. If the company has actually delivered on what an employee needs, high marks on the survey are a good thing and that employee is probably going to stick around. But far too often, employees feel pressured to score the company highly, either to help their managers make a bonus or to avoid being labeled as a poor employee. If things aren’t what they should be, the greater act of loyalty is for a worker to tell the truth. And he or she should not be punished for it. Otherwise, the first notice you’ll get that there’s a problem is when the worker resigns.

Myth 3: Employees who give low scores on the survey should just resign.

Consultancies frequently bad-mouth workers who score their companies poorly. Yet very few employees are true malcontents. If you give someone a neglectful manager and put him in a low-recognition, poorly paid, dull job with a solid dose of fear for good measure, he will be “disengaged.” Yes, he should resign for his own sake, but that does nothing to solve the company’s problem. The next person in that role is going to feel the same way.

Myth 4: It’s useful to ask about “best friends” at work.

Personal questions that steer away from the imperatives of getting the job done only confuse the issue. If someone can get her work done exceptionally well without a “best friend” there (and she can), does the business really need to stick its nose into someone’s social life? Can introverts still apply? If she reveals that she doesn't have a best friend at work, is the company going to get her one? If the organization lays her off, can she take her best friend with her?

Myth 5: Because engagement is important, bonuses should be tied to it.

Attaching incentives to high engagement scores guarantees that the scores will go up while the actual engagement will stay flat or drop. Why? “We teach to the test,” one HR professional admitted. Bonuses create a huge incentive for managers to game the scores. Not all of them will do it, but enough will to contaminate the survey.

Myth 6: Almost everyone tells the truth on employee engagement surveys.

Between the people who don’t take the survey at all and those who, as one administrative assistant put it, “mark five to survive,” many companies end up with less than half their workers both participating and telling the truth. The confidentiality reassurances of the past, which were too often broken, don’t cut it anymore.

Myth 7: Engagement is so badly messed up that it can’t be fixed.

The research continues to show that people will trust their leaders and managers to the degree they are trustworthy, that they will share information if it’s not used against them, and that they want to and will work hard for companies that care about their happiness.
Rodd Wagner, @Rodd_Wagner on Twitter, is a vice president of BI Worldwide and the New York Times best-selling author of  Widgets: The 12 New Rules for Managing Your Employees As If They're Real People (McGraw-Hill, 2015). His website,, includes access to a free self-assessment on all 12 of the New Rules. 

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