A Positive Employee Experience: The Employee Must Choose to Engage

Leo Tolstoy said: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” The employee experience often is more about the employee than the experience itself. As organizations look to create a positive employee experience, begin with the employee. Let’s look at a scenario from the book The Employee Experience: How to Attract Talent, Retain Top Performers, and Drive Results.

Monroe and Reggie have been friends since they were eight years old. They come from the same side of town, attended the same schools, and worked at the same fast-food restaurant as teens. They remained close through college.

Reggie hears about a great new job, and he and Monroe apply together. Both are hired and start their new roles on the same day. They are excited to learn that they will both work on the circuit assembly team under the same boss. They will have similar responsibilities. Their compensation is identical, and both consider it a great career opportunity. In fact, through the eyes of the company, nearly every aspect of these friends’ first year is identical. After all, their Employee Life Cycle is identical in every way, from pre-hire to new-hire orientation, to benefits eligibility, to the one-year review.

Yet, their Employee Experience (EX) is very different.

During the past several years, we (DecisionWise) have noticed a dramatic increase in the number of organizations that approach us, asking the question, “We are doing so much to create employee engagement, so why doesn’t our engagement seem to be improving?” That’s an interesting question that gets at the heart of employee engagement. In order to answer that question, we must re-examine our views of employee engagement.

First, many organizations—over the past decade, in particular—have come to see engagement as something that is done to employees. We “engage our employees.” However, engagement isn’t something that is inflicted upon them. It is something that is chosen by the employee. I “choose to engage.”

Therefore, the organization can create the environment in which an employee can choose to engage but, ultimately, it’s the employee’s choice. Engagement involves both feeling and doing. One can “feel” engaged, but employee engagement also means that employee must be acting on that feeling as well. Engagement is a 50/50 proposition.

Back to our two employees. Monroe has three children, each involved in athletics. When he joined the company, one of the things he found most attractive was that the company touted the importance of work-life balance, which was important to him because he wanted to support his children’s athletic events. Reggie is single. He’s all about the late-night party scene, so he finds getting to work before 9:00 in the morning (at least with a clear head) challenging, particularly on the nights he plays guitar in the band.

Fortunately for Monroe, the company has some flexibility in how early employees leave in the afternoon, as long as they begin at 8:00 sharp in the morning and finish critical projects before heading out for the day. Monroe finds this a real plus. Reggie, however, feels constrained by the 8:00 a.m. start time. It simply doesn’t meet his needs. He thought that “work- life balance” meant he would have some flexibility that facilitated the “life” part of the equation as much as it did the “work” part. No such luck. He had also understood that he could be fast-tracked to a management position if he showed promise, which, in his mind, he clearly has. But he’s still in the same role he was in when he started with Monroe over a year ago. He begins looking for new employment.

Reggie becomes disengaged and checks out. Monroe thrives. Identical Employee Life Cycle experiences. Very different EXs.

Part of the reason some companies aren’t seeing progress in their employee engagement efforts is that they fail to understand the basics of EX. While an organization can do its best to design a stellar EX, EX depends largely on perception and expectations. The perception portion dictates the outcome of the experience. The EX is based on the employee’s perception of what is going on, not always on the reality of what occurs. This is why Reggie and Monroe can have identical experiences, yet their EXs can be vastly different:

EX = Experiences + Expectations + Perceptions 

Some companies believe that creating a stellar EX is a matter of tossing out a few perks they believe to be universally appealing (seriously, who doesn’t like TacoTuesdays or a tube slide from the third floor down to the lobby?), then calling themselves “great places to work.” Yet their workers are still unhappy, and they move on to places where their EX is better aligned with what they’re looking for.

A positive EX isn’t just a factor of what the company throws at the employee. Rather, it’s a result of how the employee perceives those experiences, and whether or not they meet expectations. While an organization can create the environment in which an employee can choose to engage, employee engagement is still a choice—the employees’ choice.

This article is based on an excerpt from the author’s latest book, The Employee Experience: How to Attract Talent, Retain Top Performers, and Drive Results, written by Tracy Maylett and Matthew Wride and published by Wiley. The book is available in bookstores or on Amazon.

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