Thanks to the Gallup organization, employee engagement has become part of nearly every organization’s vocabulary. Gallup and other companies like Deloitte, McKinsey, and BCG highlight the value high employee engagement generates: higher customer satisfaction, more innovation, and faster growth to name a few.

Who can argue with results like that? So what’s the problem with jumping on the employee engagement bandwagon? What could possibly go wrong?

With success there is a tendency to pile on the benefits that may or may not be the result of employee engagement. It is also not something a company does or offers as a benefit. Employee engagement illuminates a culture where employers believe it is their responsibility is to provide opportunity and enhance the professional and personal lives of its workers… and the employees believe it is their responsibility to contribute their best effort and live up to their potential. Employee engagement is the outcome of a mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationship between employer and employee.

We know for sure that an engaged employee creates more shareholder value, generates more satisfied customers, commits fewer accidents, makes less mistakes, and are more dependable.

When employee engagement is created through a synergy between the employee and the employer, it works. Those companies enjoy many of the highly touted values and benefits generated from high employee engagement.

lies management believeUnfortunately, employee engagement in most organizations is merely symbolic of a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately attitude from both management and the workforce. It flows on good days and ebbs on bad ones. Authentic employee engagement should remain high through both success and setbacks.

For most organizations, employee engagement is just rhetoric. It’s a “score” that management uses to recruit candidates. Scores rise and everyone celebrates. It’s a badge that management seeks to give itself a pat on the back for a job well done. It’s not an emotion that employees AND management feel but a manufactured perk that is offered by employers to attract more qualified workers and then retain them. Like health care, vacation pay, and child care, employee engagement for many companies is something they offer not a culture they create. For many companies, it is no more than just another metric and another program inserted (and not integrated) into a somewhat dysfunctional environment and toxic employee talent pool. It’s the equivalent of putting a hot dog on a bun and calling it a steak.

But without highly functional employees who are both good at what they do and genuinely ambitious, accountable, aware, and agile, engagement is no more genuine than selling crack to an addict. Management pimps engagement to workers for profit. It’s not an authentic emotion driven by management’s commitment and passion to create a truly great place to work. It’s a strategic initiative to attract and retain a workforce. If it wasn’t, why do so many companies talk about employee engagement but abandon the initiative when they realize it takes time, effort, and personal investment in your workers? Employee engagement can’t be bought and enacted with a purchase order and contract.

And there lies the problem.

Nearly everyone (except for a few poor souls afflicted with various forms of mental illness) seeks to be in a better place today and tomorrow. Few people wake up in the morning hoping today is worse than yesterday. Nearly everyone seeks more pleasure in their life and less stress and pain. But handing out occasional recognition and rewards –the pat-on-the-back and the gift card – isn’t enough. Engagement comes from the heart. It is the soul of an organization. Like motivation, employee engagement is real and durable when it is driven internally. When the source of employee engagement is external, it is a fragile relationship.

Most employee engagement efforts are not symbiotic – they are co-dependent. Engagement falls almost exclusively on the shoulders of the employer. Employees look to the management to keep them motivated and engaged. If managers pull back on the throttle even slightly, engagement falls.

Sustainable and reliable employee engagement requires that both the employee and manager contribute to its success. Unfortunately many workers – young and old, lack the most basic motivational skills of ambition, accountability, awareness and agility to become engaged in anything on their own. They look to others to create opportunity, ensure safety, and solve problems. So employers attempt to plug-and-play those essential basic skills like they add components to their computers. That obligates the employer to take care of the worker and that inevitability leads to a co-dependent relationship. While co-dependency often reaps immediate gratification with a short term upside, it is also filled with long term negative consequences and dysfunction. Engagement based on employer hand-outs and high employee expectations becomes as fickle as the weather.

What’s the solution?

As negative as I sound, I’m not dissing or discarding employee engagement. It is a non-negotiable and essential asset for any organization expecting to win the war for talent. Despite the time, money, resources, and individual commitment that companies must invest in keeping employee engagement high, it cannot be dismissed or even treated lightly. Employee engagement is a force to be reckoned with.

Management just needs to learn to do it right.

What employers need to avoid is becoming the local engagement “dealer.” Employee engagement can become the handcuff employers want in terms of retention. Sustainable employee engagement occurs when the employer creates the culture and employees contribute to it because they are self-engaged.

Let me repeat that – employees must have the ability to self-engage, to be self-motivated. They need to possess the “skill” to create some joy and fun in their lives. Far too many people do not know how to enjoy even the simple things of life and create personal success. They expect others to entertain them, to create opportunity, and even to do the work. Many workers lack the skill and motivation to accept responsibility and accountability. They want to be led but don’t want to follow. They want to be taught but don’t want to learn. And when life deals a blow, they lack the motivation and skill to overcome adversity. Instead they seek pity and help.

The solution and the cure for creating authentic and durable employee engagement lies in better employee selection, not better motivation, monetary rewards, and pizza parties. For employers who want to continue hiring and retaining “needy” workers, go for it. Being the parent-employer creates a great handcuff. Paychecks and benefits become the allowances you can use to give and take away engagement. You might retain workers longer but loyalty, appreciation, and engagement is a mirage. Engagement should not rise only when the employer showers workers with praise, gifts, and benefits and fall when it is throttled back.

Authentic employee engagement occurs when engaged workers meet an engaging company culture. Companies committed to employee engagement identify candidates and employees who have the ability to self-engage, self-motivate, and to contribute to an engaging culture.

What are you doing to identify, hire, and retain employees who have the ability to engage with your culture as well as be engaged by it?