Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Can Employees be Too Engaged?

You can never have employees that are too loyal or a company culture that is too motivational. At least that is what I always thought until I read professor Herve Laroche's article in the MIT Review titled The Power of Moderation.

I'm a believer in moderation in most things so I was intrigued by this article. Professor Laroche describes a number of negative traits that he believes highly committed workers exhibit including:

- being difficult to get along with
- unknowingly substituting their own purposes for the company's goals
- resentment when the organization fails to meet their needs
- overconfidence leading to blindness of warning signs of impending challenges
- formation of cliques that can be antagonistic toward newcomers and other groups

Most organizations, according to Laroche, encourage employee involvement through vague mission statements. Because employees are unclear on exactly who and what they should be committed to they resort to faking loyalty. This faking is highly valued as it acknowledges the expected behaviors but doesn't create the problems listed above. In fact mid level managers who fake their own loyalty are suspicious of the truly loyal and therefore favor and reward other loyalty fakers, says Laroche.

I must admit I had to read the article several times to make sure I was understanding and not missing Laroche's point. (Which I might very well be doing.) I was disappointed that there is no mention of employee retention in the brief section that discusses the positive benefits of employee engagement. The only mention of employee turnover is that highly involved employees are prone to quit when there are changes in the company's mission and course.

I think my problem with the article is that I hold a different definition of committed employees. To me a motivated, loyal, committed and/or engaged employee is one who is motivated, loyal, committed and/or engaged to the success of the company. In this framework of caring about the overall success of the company, employees welcome changes assuming they are presented as changes that might help make the company stronger, better or more likely to succeed.

The one concern that I do share with professor Laroche is the one regarding the formation of cliques. Highly loyal employees do create strong bonds among themselves and are not always tolerant or accepting of those who do not share their level of commitment. This can create problems if new employees and distant work groups are not appropriately introduced and integrated into the corporate culture.

I must say that my favorite part of the article is Laroche's solution which he calls "sticky-note" employees. In this model employees should have moderate adherence to their organization much like a sticky note pad. With mild adhesion, employees, like sticky notes that can be reapplied over and over, can better endure through turbulent times and multiple course corrections. Regardless of whether I agree or disagree I can't help but love the analogy.


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