Internal comms and HR expert Stephen Welch returns to the H&H blog to dissect the anatomy of the different types of employee engagement programmes - and weighs up the advantages and drawbacks of each. With plenty of animal metaphors to boot!
When it comes to improving productivity, many companies turn to enhancing their employee engagement levels.
“If only we could improve employee engagement”, they argue to themselves, “then our financial performance would improve”.
And off they go.
But what these organisations fail to grasp is that there are several types of employee engagement. And this failure to understand the nuances between them is, I believe, one of the reasons why many engagement programmes fail to achieve their objectives.
The truth is that just as different jobs require different skills and experience, they also require different types of employee engagement. Engagement programmes are not like sheep dip: different roles require different approaches.
Indeed, I find it a useful way to think about employee engagement programmes in the context of different animals, based on the behavioural and attitudinal influence they exert on employees. I will leave it to you to decide which are most appropriate in your organisation.
None of these are good or bad in their own right: the most effective engagement programme is one that is best suited to the organisation.
The different types of employee engagement programme - as animals
Horse engagement programmes encourage people to work harder and longer, like the character of Boxer in Animal Farm. These programmes reward effort and input, without giving much thought to the overall results, or the impact on employees themselves.
Your programme may be ‘accidentally horse’ if you find people feeling pressured to work longer and harder, but have yet to see the financial impact.
Symptoms include the law of diminishing returns, increased absenteeism or sickness, and higher attrition – remember what happened to Boxer in Orwell’s book?
Could you be accidentally doing this to your employees?
Ever seen an engagement programme that wants people to think creatively, generate new ideas, try out new approaches, look out for new opportunities, and be curious? If so, you may be looking at a cat engagement programme.
Creativity and curiosity are important, but only in certain circumstances. For jobs which rely on process and efficiency, having a bunch of cats is not the answer.
Yet still, there are a lot of engagement programmes that encourage cat behaviour by emphasising independent thinking or innovation. Nothing wrong with that in itself: but make sure it’s confined to ‘cat jobs’ themselves.
These are engagement programmes that emphasise goals and strategy, are handed down from the top (the master), talk about expected compliance and reward immediate results.
These types of engagement programmes are common: after all, employee engagement is about aligning people with strategy and inspiring them to perform to their best.
But the risk with dog engagement is that you crush unique, out-of-the-box thinking, create a pack mentality, reinforce dependencies, and discourage positive deviance.
This is fine in a process-heavy environment, but if your business model depends on other actions and behaviours, be careful about having too many dogs in your litter.
I’ve seen a lot of these in my time. Parrot engagement programmes are similar to dog engagement programmes but the key difference is that they involve a lot of pretty pictures, bright logos, and incessant repetition of corporate jargon.
If your engagement programme has some key messages, a catch phrase, shiny posters or trinkets with your new corporate values on them – but not much substance - chances are it might be of the parrot kind.
Nothing wrong with this of course, especially if you have a lot of customer-facing staff and want to ensure consistent messaging. Parrot engagement can work well in these types of jobs, but be careful that you don’t overdo it.
Remember: a group of parrots is called a ‘pandemonium’. For a reason.
A chimp engagement programme inadvertently encourages competition and dominance displays. If your corporate messages focus on individual achievement or encourage competition between different business units, then you might have a chimp programme.
Chimpanzees are also known for acting on feelings or emotions and aiming for immediate gratification. Chimp engagement programmes reward the short-term and might have a positive impact quickly, but the long-term outcomes are less clear.
However, if your organisation is in a crisis situation for example, then a chimp programme might be just what you need.
This is a less-benign version of cat or chimpanzee engagement programmes. Bull programmes encourage a lot of competitive behaviour, but it is unmanaged. These programmes are well-intentioned but inadvertently encourage destructive behaviour among employees.
If you want your people to go charging off and kill the competition, then maybe this is the type of programme for you. You can recognise these company cultures because they will often have a surfeit of ‘alpha-employees' with aggressive natures and a ‘don’t-take-prisoners’ mentality.
In certain situations, this can have its place but the problem is that these situations are few and far between, so be careful about motivating people to perform in this way.
Finally, the ultimate quest: unicorn engagement. But in fact, these programmes don’t exist… except in the minds of HR professionals or senior leaders who assume that delivering such a programme will be a panacea.
These programmes are designed to empower employees to emit rainbows, discover magic pots of gold, and dance elegantly through daisies. Of course, such things are totally unrealistic.
And yet, unicorn-like promises are made all the time by people who think that a series of on-the-spot internal comms, a flash-in-the-pan employee engagement scheme, or a shiny new intranet can produce rainbow-emitting results.
These promises are fanciful; the truth is that changing behaviours and enhancing organisational performance takes a lot of serious thought, hard work, rigour, and a clear, well-considered strategy and plan to enable success.
What other animal engagement programmes can you think of?