Q&A: How to Build Engagement in the 21st Century

Engagement Chasm

Marylene Delbourg-Delphis is a “serial tech CEO” who’s led multiple companies and advised numerous others as they climbed to the next level. In her book, Everybody Wants to Love their Job: Rebuilding Trust and Culture, she takes a hard look at how executives pursue—or don’t pursue—employee engagement.

When we recently spoke with Delbourg-Delphis, we asked her to expand on some of the book’s key themes.

In your book you talk about culture and engagement, and also why engagement efforts may not work. Is it fair to say it often comes down to execution—the human element fails?

You have that completely right. Many, or I should say most, engagement efforts don’t work. And yes, the reasons all seem to boil down to some kind of a human element.

The first human element I would mention is a frequent ignorance of the overall economic context in which employee disengagement appeared in the first place. The problem is actually rooted in the evolution, and revolution, in labor productivity that loosened the relationship between companies and their employees starting in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. All of a sudden employees seemed less important.

Also, the industrial revolution led to a huge discrepancy between the company’s search for wealth and growth and the employee’s individual wealth and growth. So productivity has grown and led to much greater profits for firms. However, compensation, including pay and benefits, hasn’t risen as fast as productivity.

So companies want what they had in the ‘50s, but they don’t offer anything in return. What I would say is that companies expect engagement, but they have no right to expect engagement.

For reasons that go beyond the financial? It doesn’t seem like employers are pushing on softer issues like an employee’s energy and passion. Those are what can really wrap people into the company.

Marylene Delbourg-Delphis

Marylene Delbourg-Delphis

Yes. They take engagement for granted. They expect employees to be engaged when they actually only pay employees to work. They take for granted that people should be committed to them. But they don’t ask, “Why should they?”

The changing conditions of employment have given rise to new issues, and the typical labor contract is not going to cut it. But companies have rarely worked on creating a more balanced relationship. They’ve rarely given employees a new reason to commit to the company.

Also, companies have increased the feeling among employees that they’re simply pawns. Starting in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, they would lay off people to make their financials looks better. So they haven’t created a new contract, but they’ve increased their problems by treating people like cogs in the machinery, more so than ever.

I agree, but I’ve yet to hear a CEO who doesn’t go on and on about the importance of engagement.

I think that they care for the word. I mean, they don’t want to have the reputation of not engaging their employees. But given that they don’t know why employees are disengaged, they can’t act on it.

If they knew, do you think they would? I mean, there’s so many companies out there offering employee surveys and ways to get at these issues. Do you think the CEOs…

They don’t look at surveys. They don’t look at surveys and actually they only use surveys as a checkmark of things HR needs to do. So they give HR the job. HR sends the survey. They try to force employees to respond. Everybody’s bored. It takes 20 minutes and if they’re in bad mood, everything is bad. If they’re in an OK mood, everything is OK.

The results of these surveys are simply useless. In the book, I mention a very large organization where 62 percent of its employees were proud to work for the company, but only 8 percent would stay if they were offered a better position somewhere else. And only 15 percent were inspired to do their best work.

But look at the way the organization read these results. They looked at the bright side. Sixty-two percent of the employees are proud to work at the company. This information is good for them because they’re assuming, well, the employees aren’t likely to vent their frustration on social networks. So shareholders won’t know anything more than the survey results.

But the fact that only 8 percent would stay, and only 15 percent would recommend the place, that’s no problem to them. Why? Because there’s that old prejudice that you cannot trust employees, or that employees are lazy. So organizations may manufacture frustration, but in the end the problem is tagged as an employee problem.

Can you talk about the human factor in developing the employee experience? To achieve engagement, what should executives and line managers and HR people be focusing on, regardless of the tool?

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You’re asking several questions at once here. First, yes, technology’s a big part of our private and work lives. But why do people want to bring their own device to work? Because the equipment they have at work is usually lousy. So if you want to have a good employee experience, why don’t you start by giving your employees the best, latest equipment with the most updated software? I mean how many HR people put this on top of the agenda of the employee experience? Hardly any. So the HR person should really go to IT and say, “I want all employees to have the latest version of Word.”

Also, how do you work as a team? How many companies use Slack effectively? If you want to work as a team, you have to have HR work on all the platforms that allow communication and visibility within the company. So if the HR team isn’t able to have IT organize Slack or Symphony or some other product properly, what’s the employee experience?

You know, most of the work we do in companies is about communication. But communication isn’t assured. So the related goal of HR is to make sure that all the communication tools are there, and that employees have visibility using products such as BetterWorks or Workboard. How many companies make this a management priority?

Basically, given that we are all living in technology, the HR team should be technology freaks. Not simply HR technology. They should look at all the future augmented reality products like Spatial, for example, which allows for the building of virtual reality rooms.

Do you think that company leaders and HR truly understand the role technology should play in helping employees love their jobs?

I don’t think they do.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, my father owned a small manufacturing business. There wasn’t a lot of technology back then, but he knew how to drive a forklift. He knew how to operate every machine on the assembly line. Today, it seems like technology has taken on a role similar to his factory’s machinery, but leadership doesn’t understand how to use it.

Exactly. There’s a separation between the leadership and their workforce. So the workforce is already part of the digital transformation while companies are not. I mean, companies are organized in silos. But in reality, the people we employ live horizontally. They communicate the way they want to communicate. And so there’s a discrepancy between the people we hire and who they are in their personal life.  

Companies have empowered us as users, telling us we’re king. If we’re not happy, we’ll return a product. We’ll be reimbursed. But the minute we enter the workplace in the very same company that empowers us a user, we become helpless. We can’t speak to the boss of our boss. And when we have a complaint, we have to go through an incredible bureaucracy that makes sure our complaint is never going to be heard. So the population we have is digital and companies are trying to go through their digital transformation, but it’s very slow because leadership is outskilled by its own employees.

Thinking about your father and the fact he could handle a forklift: Basically, your father was walking on the same floor as his employees. This has completely disappeared. For example, somebody who’s 18 today distinctly understands new forms of agriculture. He’s able to handle the completely digital John Deere system. But his boss can’t. That’s a crazy thing.

Executives don’t even know what employee experience means. They would tell you that they are now leaders full of empathy. But you know, empathy is based on data. So what are your data? How do you know about the feelings of your employees?

When you say data, I’m assuming you’re not just talking about, say, survey results. Data is talking to people one-on-one, walking through the corridors, having conversations.

That’s data management by walking around. But it can also be a new type of survey. Not the survey that you administer once in a while based on a lousy question like “Do you like your company? Do you like your boss?” Instead, it’s about measuring the employee’s emotion. And this is a new generation of product that’s happening, where some organizations try to understand the employee’s experience from the point of view of the employee, not simply from the view of the company.

One last question. Broadly speaking, what’s your advice to leadership regarding the use of technology as they pursue the goals you describe in your book?

My advice is don’t think technology is going to solve your management problems. Technology is useful only if there is a clear intent in its use. If you think that you’re going to know your employees because you have the best HRIS, you’re just dreaming. If you think that because you have the most sophisticated product you’ll be able to predict turnover, change your brain. It’s not going to help you build a retention strategy. It’s only going to rationalize what you do, which isn’t necessarily the best idea.

So my advice is to start looking at what your employees want to do because you pay them to do a job. With the same money you pay them, how can you make them so happy to work for you that your productivity actually increases?

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