When Engagement Is Low But Performance Is High

In the big world of HR, we’re trained to believe that if employee engagement is low, all is wrong in the workplace. But that’s actually incorrect, because there’s a couple of unspoken truth that most wonks (like me) don’t like to talk about:

Your lack of engagement/happiness at work doesn’t mean you can’t perform at a high level, and

There’s a whole bunch of professional managers in the corporate world that now how to squeeze performance out of unengaged, unhappy people.

Now – before all you engagement people come after me, I’m not saying that engagement and happiness are the same thing.  I’m also not saying that you can maximize the potential of your workforce without an engaged employee population.

But I am saying this – there are effective managers everywhere who squeeze results out of un-engaged workforces and people every day.

For an example of this, check out my post over at the HR Capitalist on Tom Thibodeau, the former coach of the pro basketball’s Chicago Bulls.  Short version of that post is as follows. Thibodeau has a system.  That system gets great results for significant periods of time, but doesn’t really care how you feel about the system.

In short, Thibodeau’s management system doesn’t need you to like work.  The system is known to get the results and forces accountability for all who work in it.  The manager knows how to hold people accountable for the results they’re expected to deliver.  The manager knows the work to be performed, and success follows when the system is followed without deviation.

Of course, a funny thing happens when a manager doesn’t need engagement for his or her workgroup to be successful.  Here’s a couple of things you can bank on happening to the manager who gets high performance without caring about engagement:

The manager usually gets a spike in engagement when they take over a low performing group because they know what they’re doing and the group hasn’t had great results in the past.  “We’re winning! Cool!”

Over time, the need for total compliance of the high performance/who cares about engagement manager starts to drop engagement to former levels and even below.  The need for 100% compliance creates a task mentality that ultimately sucks the fun out of work – even if you’re winning. “This guy is sucking the life out of me with his rules and follow-ups”

Animosity towards the high performance/low engagement manager builds over time.  It’s like the line in Ferris Buhler where Cameron decides to skip school – “He’s going to keep calling…”  The high performance/low engagement manager gets results, but the persistent drive for performance that’s required by this type of manager means that there’s a build up over a period of years that can result in some nasty stuff – like high turnover, poor employee to employee relationships and more. “I miss the days when you could say you were in a bad cell area for calls.”

-Innovation tends to die.  Which is counter-intuitive, because we’re all trained to believe that innovation happens in high performing workgroups.  I’ve seen the high performance/low engagement manager at work before, and it’s safe to say that the people who stay aren’t necessarily interested in the discretionary effort that’s required to innovate.  They’re just tying to keep the high performance/low engagement manager at bay.  “I’m just going to get through this and go home and watch Game of Thrones.”

At the end of the day, we all have some choices related to the types of managers we hire and grow.  Low performance/low engagement?  No thanks.  Low performance/high engagement?  The lunchroom feels great, but it’s fool’s gold.

High performance/low engagement? It’s better than the two alternatives above, but you better have a transition plan.  The problem is that most high performance/low engagement managers could care less about helping you get high engagement.

It’s not how they’re wired.  They have a system.  Deal with it – until you don’t want to any more.

FOT Note: This Rant is brought to you by the good folks at Halogen Software, who like us enough to be an annual sponsor at FOT for all content in our performance management track (and don’t expect that we run any of this by them ahead of time). 

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