Could it really be the end of employee engagement? I was evaluating some technology the other day that is designed to help individuals achieve their goals. The “app” I was looking at provides a user with a variety of ways to ensure that a habit will become imprinted on the test subject – I mean the user. Rather than coming away excited, I felt troubled. I began to wonder whether we spend too much time trying to “program” the human brain. Is the brain just a biological computer, where inputs and outputs are readily configurable? My experience tells me no. And, I think many of you are like me: you feel uneasy when anyone claims to know the precise levers to pull in order to make significant behavioral changes. Most of us believe the human brain, and its attendant quirks, is much more than a grey-matter motherboard that runs on cellular respiration. While we cannot describe its scope, we certainly feel its complexity.
Let’s keep that thought in the background while we turn to the concept of employee engagement. Rodd Wagner is a well-known journalist and consultant that focuses on employee engagement. He recently proclaimed that “[t]he age of ‘employee engagement’ may be nearing its end.” Wagner’s primary point is that because companies and practitioners have failed to perfectly implement the ideas that underlie employee engagement, it’s time to try something else.
Could Wagner be right? Maybe. But, it depends on whether you are looking for something new to talk about or whether you are truly interested in furthering the science of organization development. When commentators like Wagner predict a change on the horizon they do so to sell a new way of looking at things. They attempt to make themselves relevant. I suppose we sometimes do the same thing at DecisionWise. The problem is that when practitioners unveil a new model or theory, we implicitly send the message that organization development is an ever-changing field, constantly discarding the old in search of the new. It’s as if we are searching for our own social “string” theory to consistently explain and predict the universe of human behavior.
As noted above, however, the human brain cannot be programmed with punch cards. It cannot be cajoled into submission. It has produced the greatest works of art while also committing unspeakable atrocities. Humans are incredibly complex and powerful; more complex than the multitude of dimensions contemplated by modern theoretical physicists. As such, there will never be one unifying behavioral theory. Similarly, imperfect humans will never perfectly implement models that, in the end, are designed to make them better.
At DecisionWise, we do not claim to have the sine qua non of organizational effectiveness. We understand that organization development is a soft science, and while we use scientific methods where possible, this is truly as much art as science. Critics like to find flaws in contributions. Certainly, they exist. But our discipline has yielded scientifically-validated insights and recommendations, and good consultants are able to help organizations and individuals make meaningful changes that are both substantive and measurable.
As human beings, our innate urge is to make things better: our homes, our crops, our tools, our lives, our relationships, etc. As long as this yearning exists, there will be a need to study and promote the concepts that underlie “engagement,” even if we are not perfect in implementing our discoveries. As individuals and organizations try to find order and meaning in their lives, they will seek out others with experience for suggestions on how to achieve these ideals. Consequently, organization development will continue to be an important field of study and research.
We know that labels and paradigms will come and go, as there will never be a single, successful theory for a subject predicated on the human brain. We also know that even though human and organizational behavior is exceedingly complex, that’s no reason to give up on ideas that are proven, and have merit. To do so would be to ignore the decades of research and practice that have contributed greatly to the success of both organizations and individuals. With the innovation-at-all-costs mindset, sometimes organizations and individuals discard the practical for the creative. DecisionWise remains committed to providing our clients with the best professional advice possible in order to help them make their human interactions better, both at home and in the workplace—and it works. That doesn’t always mean searching for the newest theories or practices, just to sell a new way of looking at things. Good change helps us progress. Bad change sets us back.
There will always be those that look to abandon the “tried and true” in search of the “untried, but new.” But let’s not drop what works, just for the sake of finding something “different.” Even if that means we continue to promote effective models that a few consider to be outdated.
 Wagner, Rod. “The End of ‘Employee Engagement?’”. Forbes.com. Forbes, 11 May 2015. Web. 13 Aug. 2015.
 For years, theoretical physicists have been searching for a single theory to reconcile Newtonian physics with quantum mechanics. The most widely-known theory that has been postulated to solve this problem is “string” theory.