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What youth soccer tells us about employee engagement...

posted May 14, 2012, 12:03 PM by Lisa Shelley   [ updated Jul 8, 2013, 2:25 PM ]
I recently read an article on the Sustainable Business Forum that perfectly illustrated a flaw in the way that many businesses look at Employee Engagement, "Are You Managing for Engagement or Performance?" by Jason Lauritsen.  The premise of the article was that often employee engagement activity is focused on the happiness and satisfaction of employees, and this focus does not necessarily result in improved business results.  The author illustrated his point by comparing his four year old daughter's genuine 'engagement' with soccer, despite her corresponding lack of ability and contribution to the team's score.  Lauritsen challenges that instead of engagement businesses should focus simply on job performance.

While I wholeheartedly agree that many businesses too narrowly define employee engagement in terms of a soft measure such as employee satisfaction, I think the youth soccer analogy falls apart with a bit more comprehensive look at what employees really need to be engaged with their work.  Unlike the youth soccer player, employees want to contribute.  Employees that don't feel like they are able to make an impact are very unlikely to report high engagement.

An effective understanding of employee engagement must be comprehensive.  It must move beyond a simplistic focus on a 'fun environment,' or the latest 'employee appreciation' program and also consider factors that affect an employee's ability to contribute.  

True engagement is the satisfaction that results when employees feel like a respected part of the organization, are empowered and able to effectively contribute, and are inspired and emotionally committed to the mission of the business.

How does your organization empower employees to make an impact?  Do they have the necessary access to information, tools and resources?  Do they have the skills that they need?   A focus on performance alone can yield short term productivity benefits, however without a corresponding focus on creating a culture that respects, empowers and inspires your employees, those productivity benefits will not be optimal or sustainable.

Returning to the four year old on the soccer field.  Having taken three daughters through the youth soccer experience, I suspect that the days of blissful enjoyment of being outdoors and running around with friends, despite any particular contribution to the game itself, are numbered.  Before too long, the child's awareness will break beyond the joy of running on the field with friends, to a realization of a greater objective and expectation... scoring goals and winning the game.  At this point one of two things will happen. She will focus on building the skills necessary to contribute to the game, or she will likely decide that soccer is not so much fun anymore.