Engagement: Look How Far We’ve Come

When it comes to engagement with our work teams, we have to be impressed with how far we’ve come in just the last few years. We’re more authentic and communicative than we’ve ever been; silos are being torn down all around us.

Sometimes, however – especially when it seems we still aren’t doing enough – it helps to look back at what we used to pass off as employee engagement… and reflect a bit. How many of these old-school tricks and traps do you remember? Perhaps more important, how many might we still use today?

The Suggestion Box

Remember the box mounted to the wall near the time clock or break room? The one with the slot on top and the mini-lock to guarantee privacy and the accompanying “We Value Your Suggestions!” sign?

Over time, executives proved this over and over by failing to read – or react to – our suggestions. This wasn’t engagement… this was false hope in a wooden box.


As we threw our red solo cups away and headed home for the weekend, we often didn’t feel so much engaged


The Employee Survey

Every other year (perhaps more often in the 1980s in the interest of “Total Quality Management”) – and typically when a front-line manager would declare an “employee morale” emergency – we would be asked to complete the dreaded employee survey. We colored in the dots; hoping no one would recognize our hand-writing, we answered what felt like essay questions.

And then… nothing. There was typically zero follow-up based on the data collected. No summaries were distributed. No apparent action was taken. Sure, C-levels and HR read the data… and then the survey died a lonely death in a bottom drawer, as if “We surveyed them, so they know we’re listening” was good enough.

The Annual Performance Review

Throughout our corporate lives, some of us saw our “HR rep” once per year: during our annual review. Before we walked in the room, our direct supervisors would have already graded us on our performance; it was the HR Rep’s job, with the supervisor in the room, to spin the comments in the report; everything had to be positive. The real goal, it seemed: small talk (3 minutes); discuss what we were doing well (5 minutes); get talked at regarding areas of improvement (50 minutes); and, of course; the smile, handshake and “glad we’re all on the same page” pep talk (2 minutes).

This wasn’t engagement… it was an annual duty HR and supervisors crossed off the to-do list with the same “glad THAT’s over” zeal that accompanied their mother-in-law’s birthday.

The “Need to Know” Friday Happy Hour

Ah, my personal favorite: let’s gather everyone around the common area, tap a mini-keg of beer and open some boxes of wine, dump three bags of Chex mix into a bowl, bring out the sheet cake from Costco… and have an informal discussion between the executives, HR and all the employees. Corporate utopia… Right?


When it comes to engagement with our work teams, we have to be impressed with how far we’ve come in just the last few years


The trouble with these “spontaneous” get-togethers? With the exception of the comic relief provided by the CEO, everything was planned; every rah-rah “only tell them what they need to know – or want to hear” word was scripted; very little actual dialogue occurred. As we threw our red solo cups away and headed home for the weekend, we often didn’t feel so much engaged… as we did a little buzzed from the corporate-provided alcohol – and a lot manipulated from the corporate BS.

Yes, compared to the standards set by some in our modern era, we still have a lot of work to do regarding engagement. However, look how far we’ve come in terms of communication, transparency, growth – and our ability to motivate our teams toward accomplishment of a common goal.

Now, let’s bring back those happy hours – and make them count!

Connect with Mark

Mark is the founder of the popular site YouTern.com. YouTern.com enables young talent to become highly employable by connecting them to high-impact internships and mentors – and through contemporary career advice found on our blog. Mark is also a blogger at Huffington Post.

Mark Babbitt is a speaker, author and blogger who serves as CEO and Founder of YouTern, a social community for college students, recent graduates and young professionals that Mashable calls a "Top 5 Online Community for Starting Your Career." He is also President of Switch and Shift and CMO and co-founder of ForwardHeroes.org. Mark is the father of five and a grandfather; he and the woman who tolerates him (barely) call Seattle, Washington home.

  • Isn’t the real problem that “engagement” was (and still is) interpreted as something that HR departments needed to generate in employees? So the initiatives you mention were token efforts.

    Perhaps we should be talking about “buy in” or “connection”. Something that leadership need to earn, rather than demand.

    If that’s the case, then the employee survey and the suggestions box can be very powerful. They are means of holding leadership accountable, rather than a measure of employee “engagement”.

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