From Engagement to “Skin in the Game”

Take a breath, this is going to be a long-ish post in the standards of this blog.

In this post, I’d like to explain why I think “employee engagement” and/or “employee satisfaction” are vanity metrics, that are likely to become a distraction from true improvements to organizational health. Don’t worry. It’s not all bad. I also like to propose an alternative path that’s more likely to lead to the end state we’re really optimizing for.

This is a 3-part piece: in the first part, I’ll present the thinking, mostly not my own, that led me to see this disjoint. In the second part, I’ll anchor it in some real world examples. Finally, I’ll propose an approach that I believe can take us closer to the right path.

Part I: What’s wrong with “employee engagement”?

I can’t remember what led me to discover this “ancient” (+20 years old) piece by Chris Argyris,  one of the fathers of the field of “organizational development”:

Good Communications that Blocks Learning

But ever since I did, I come back and re-read it quite regularly. Which is rather rare in my case, and a good indication that it contains some fundamental truth, that unfortunately is still far from being considered self-evident in the People Ops space. It’s a +6,000 words piece, that is well worth a thorough read, but I’ve quoted some of the most relevant parts to the discussion at hand below (emphasis is mine).

Chris makes his case known from the get-go:

Years ago, when corporations still wanted employees who did only what they were told, employee surveys and walk-around management were appropriate and effective tools. They can still produce useful information about routine issues like cafeteria service and parking privileges, and they can still generate valuable quantitative data in support of programs like total quality management. What they do not do is get people to reflect on their work and behavior. They do not encourage individual accountability. And they do not surface the kinds of deep and potentially threatening or embarrassing information that can motivate learning and produce real change.

And explains the false rationale more deeply:

In the name of positive thinking, in other words, managers often censor what everyone needs to say and hear. For the sake of “morale” and “considerateness,” they deprive employees and themselves of the opportunity to take responsibility for their own behavior by learning to understand it. Because double-loop learning depends on questioning one’s own assumptions and behavior, this apparently benevolent strategy is actually antilearning. Admittedly, being considerate and positive can contribute to the solution of single-loop problems like cutting costs. But it will never help people figure out why they lived with problems for years on end, why they covered up those problems, why they covered up the cover-up, why they were so good at pointing to the responsibility of others and so slow to focus on their own.

At the heart of the problem, is a false role design principle:

First, consider the way roles and responsibilities are assigned in manager-employee (or leader-subordinate) conversations, interviews, and surveys. There seem to be two rules. Rule number one is that employees are to be truthful and forthcoming about the world they work in, about norms, procedures, and the strengths and weaknesses of their superiors. All other aspects of their role in the life of the organization—their goals, feelings, failings, and conflicted motives—are taken for granted and remain unexamined. Rule number two is that top-level managers, who play an intensely scrutinized role in the life of the company, are to assume virtually all responsibility for employee well-being and organizational success. Employees must tell the truth as they see it; leaders must modify their own and the company’s behavior. In other words, employees educate, and managers act.

Which manifests itself in tools like employee surveys:

Employee surveys like the one Acme conducted—and like most other forms of leader-subordinate communication—have a fundamentally antimanagement bias whenever they deal with double-loop issues. They encourage employees not to reflect on their own behavior and attitudes. By assigning all the responsibility for fixing problems to management, they encourage managers not to relinquish the top-down, command-and-control mind-set that prevents empowerment.

This “positivity” also highlights more fundamental issues:

But this emphasis on being positive is plainly counterproductive. First, it overlooks the critical role that dissatisfaction, low morale, and negative attitudes can play—often should play—in giving an accurate picture of organizational reality, especially with regard to threatening or sensitive issues. (For example, if employees are helping to eliminate their own jobs, why should we expect or encourage them to display high morale or disguise their mixed feelings?) Second, it condescendingly assumes that employees can only function in a cheerful world, even if the cheer is false. We make no such assumption about senior executives. We expect leaders to stand up and take their punches like adults, and we recognize that their best performance is often linked to shaky morale, job insecurity, high levels of frustration, and a vigilant focus on negatives. But leaders have a tendency to treat everyone below the top, including many of their managers, like members of a more fragile race, who can be productive only if they are contented.

Chugging along with these attitudes in place, is simply not sustainable in today’s competitive reality:

Today, facing competitive pressures an earlier generation could hardly have imagined, managers need employees who think constantly and creatively about the needs of the organization. They need employees with as much intrinsic motivation and as deep a sense of organizational stewardship as any company executive. To bring this about, corporate communications must demand more of everyone involved. Leaders and subordinates alike—those who ask and those who answer—must all begin struggling with a new level of self-awareness, candor, and responsibility.

Bottom line: the focus on positive “employee engagement” / “employee satisfaction” further exacerbates the “employees educate, managers act” dynamics and the sense of learned helplessness of employees in dealing with organizational health issues.

Part II: Real world examples

Let’s explore two prominent trends in the PeopleOps space. Both are getting some serious attention in recent years and experience some notion of forward progress. But evaluated through Argyris’ double-loop learning lens, are we really making progress or still standing in place?

Employee engagement/satisfaction surveys:

Whether you use a tried-and-true tool like the Gallup Q12, decided to give an innovative startup like CultureAmp a try,  or opted to build your own home-brewed, most-likely-Google-Forms-based tool, the fundamental interaction design remains the same: you, the employee, should truthfully tell us what’s going on, and we, management, will solve these issues for you. Allow me to demonstrate with a few Q12 questions (my additions in italics, intentionally extreme/exaggerated to drive the point home):

  • You DO NOT know what is expected of you at work, but never asked your manger to clarify her expectations
  • You DO NOT have the materials and equipment you need to do your work right, but never asked for them
  • At work, your opinions DO NOT seem to count, but you never made an effort to articulate them clearly
  • Your associates or fellow employees ARE NOT committed to doing quality work, but you never referred a candidate to the company, or gave one of your peers honest feedback
  • You DO NOT have a best friend at work, but never made the effort to make one

To be clear, I’m not trying to make the case that these should all be problems for the employee to solve on her own – that would be just as senseless as making them purely the problem of management. I’m trying to show that the employee’s own behavior plays a critical role in both the problem and the solution.

360 Feedback

Again, the tool, be it Workday, Reflektive or your own home-brewed solution, doesn’t change the fundamental interaction design: you, the reviewer, should truthfully tell us/me what’s going on, and we (management)/I (the employee) are/is responsible for addressing it. Even in the more progressive setup, where feedback is shared/solicited directly to/by the employee, the dynamic stays the same: one side calls out the problem, and the other side is responsible for solving it.

Part III: Having “skin in the game”

The good news is that starting to move in the right direction, doesn’t require some dramatic change management effort, or a massive paradigm shift. The glass half-full of “a tool is only as good as the process it enables” is that it’s unlikely that you’ll have to throw your existing tool out the window, and have all those hours upon hours of implementation and adoption go to waste.

A small tweak to the interaction design can be a great first step. I’ve been contemplating how to label this tweak: “dyadic” sounds way too academic, “reciprocal” is not quite there. “Skin in the game” seems to be the closest, but I’m open to better label ideas. The idea is to model the interaction based on the fact that both sides are accountable for solving the problem, and they both have roles to play in the solution, albeit different ones (in most cases).

The pattern looks something like this:

  • The problem, why it’s a problem, and how much of a problem it is.
  • What I will do to make it better
  • What you can do to make it better

Consider the 360 feedback example I covered earlier:

  • “You could really use some work on your communication skills”


  • “You could really use some work on your communication skills. Here’s what I will do to help you work on them: <list of things that I will do> and here’s what you can do to work on them: <list of things that you can do>”

Which feedback is more likely to result in you improving your communication skills, and which one is more likely to end in inaction?

Would this require more from me as someone providing feedback? Absolutely! But to repeat the final words form the Argyris piece:

Leaders and subordinates alike—those who ask and those who answer—must all begin struggling with a new level of self-awareness, candor, and responsibility.

From Engagement to “Skin in the Game”

One thought on “From Engagement to “Skin in the Game”

  1. This piece helped me understand how I differentiate between a good and bad review/retro meeting at the end of a sprint. If all of the issues identified are assigned for follow up to senior leaders in the org it takes on a similar ‘management will fix it.’

    Good review/retro meetings generally include all levels of members to take on the problems identified. For those assigned to more senior roles it makes me think they should ‘pair’ with a more junior role to figure out what to do.

    Thank you for this!


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