Employees engagement through social media : is it an illusion ?

Summary : Employees engagement is a very trendy topic ans, as usual, social networking dynamics are seens as the miraculous solution to make it happen. The problem is, in fact, deeper : between in-trompe-l’oeil projects (implementing a social network to avoid looking into real issues), mistrust cultural reflexes towards organizations and people who can be more or less extrovert, tools are not a magic wand. Enterprises need to focus on employees’ expectations (most of all in terms of HR), find a way to address people who have a rational approach of their professional engagement and, most of all, should keep in mind that the activity of their social platform is not the only barometer of employees engagement.

The concept of engagement is central in lots of thoughts and arguments about enterprise 2.0 or enterprise social networks. The reason is easy to understand : engaged employees are more concerned, less willing to leave the job and are more likely to give their best to help their employer and colleagues to be successful. Of course, everything that can bring employees closer to their enterprise and build stronger ties among them is good…hence the irruption of social media and social networks in the debate.

Really ?

It sounds like one more magic wand trick. “Engage your employees by using social media”. Of course, they had no visibility on their future, are asked to accept lower salaries that what they could expect (yes sir…you know…that’s the crisis), are asked to do always more for less, not to expect any raise in reward because the reward is to keep their job, are prevented to use most of networking sites, were hired because of their ability to propos, innovate, lead and, on their first day at work, were told to shut up and follow the party line, are afraid that their employer does not care about their future employability in a fast changing world….and a Facebook-like will change everything. Being able to connect the one with another will make them forget everything,  help them to sleep better at night and not fear the future. Being (potentially) connected will increase their motivation.

Seriously. Do you think that any social tool will change anything ?

Using a social network won’t change anything unless it’s a part of a set of tools serving a more global approach aiming at improving what I mentioned above. Unfortunately, behind the promise of “social networks for”, many overlook that the toughest part of the project is the project behind. A kind of illusion of easiness serves nobody. Of course, if a real plan is set up to train, discuss, listen, favor self and P2P learning, then the network well be a key element of the system. Meanwhile, and that’s a good thing, many organizations still don’t have any social network policy but have been having a voluntarist HR policy for ages. The first will never be enough to exempt oneself from the second.

There’s also another element that deserves our attention. Enterprises can’t  unilaterally engages with  employees but can gives them reasons to decide to engage. Here again, making organizations believe they have all the levers to make engagement possible is a mistake. Organizations can create a context that favors engagement but, at the end, each employee will decide for himself. It’s a little but bit like in marriage : you can be nice looking, rich, funny, ask someone for marriage and…be answered “no”. Engagement means letting others know who you are…and let them decide. That’s not something easy in a context of distrust. Let’s call a spade a spade : for personal or cultural reasons, some people will always have a low level of engagement, will never allow colleagues to be more than colleagues, and will refuse to expose themselves too much. For them, working in the same organization does only mean working for the same organization…and nothing more.

An HR person recently told me “in our US subsidiary, an employee who says he love the company, his job and that his colleagues rocks is an engaged employee, the same in France is a stupid bootlicker that people make fun of and are even careful about.”.

That leads us to the last point. The expression of engagement. Can we say that people are engaged because they connect, send positive messages, compliment others publicly ? Maybe. On the other hand that’s not because they don’t behave this way that they’re not engaged. There are lots of people devoted to their company, who are conscientious and committed but whose personality prevent them from behind that demonstrative. Their engagement is more discreet, may rely on other things. A quality that’s often attributed to social networks is that they makes it easier to express things, to make them visible and, ideally, viral. But it does not work with all kind of personalities so it’s both an incomplete lever and a biased indicator. In fact few people love to make things out loud at work. It even make lots of people feel embarrassed  even if they’re engaged and committed to their work.

Conclusion ? Think about your HR policy first, don’t focus on the visible part of the iceberg only, respect people’s culture and personality. Open the door, make everything to make them feeling like walking through it. But keep in mind that the decision is theirs and that they won’t express their engagement the same way.

Organizations will also have to wonder how to deal with people that are very motivated, who love their company, their work put are not inclined to visible demonstrations.

Social networks as ties and engagement builders are not an illusion at all. But they need sense and alignment to keep the promise. They’ll never be a replacement for a voluntarist HR policy but a lever to make it successful.

Dilbert.com