Happy and Sneezy May Be Engaged But Grumpy Drives Innovation

For the past decade, we’ve challenged our clients to foster a workplace environment that would have their employees singing, “hi-ho, hi-ho it’s off to work we go!”  Kaptivate has advocated for employee engagement (which we define as developing conditions that inspire consistent, positive contributions and that also align with the organization’s goals) because we have witnessed engaged employees drive their brands to new heights.  Nevertheless, dissenting voices are jumping off the engaged workplace wagon and saying, if "Necessity is the mother of invention," all this engagement talk is sapping innovation out of our organizations.  
So are we changing our tune and moving on to the next consulting fad? Nope. Nevertheless, since we do pride ourselves on being data-driven, we need to acknowledge that the engagement dissenters’ argument may have merit: too much of a good thing can sometimes go awry.  So while we’re not singing a new song, we’re adding a verse.  To borrow the words of author Monica Byrne, “creation needs constraints."
So let’s begin with why Kaptivate has been pushing employee engagement.  We’ve been a strong proponent of workforce engagement because we have measured, as well as reviewed countless case studies, on the powerful benefits of boosting employee engagement levels.  These benefits include improved employee well-being, retention, and stronger alignment with customers.  We have witnessed and measured these results at some of the leading global brands where service quality and customer satisfaction was significantly improved by the introduction of engagement initiatives.  These engagement initiatives, empowering employees to learn new skills, helping them understand their role in the organization, or supporting their involvement in customer community projects, reinforce the bond between employee and the organization’s mission. Notwithstanding these positive benefits, the correlation between engaged workplaces and performance outcomes is less clear.
In a recent Google study on what drives high performance organizations, the researchers found that high performing organizations: 
  1. make employees feel secure (I can take a risk)
  2. ensure defined roles and expectations (I know my role and I will execute as expected) and
  3. deliver sense of purpose (what I do matters and has impact).  
Most of these factors, specifically items 2 and 3, ring true for engaged workplaces; however, creating an atmosphere where a team member can take risks is often overlooked.  As a recent Harvard Business Review article aptly titled, "The Dark Side of High Employee Engagement” notes “When employees are too focused on getting along, they will probably not care so much about getting ahead.”  How does "too much" employee engagement hamper risk taking and ultimately innovation?  It begins with success.  Team members of an engaged workplace want to preserve the successful status quo and become less self-critical and potentially less tolerant of rebels who threaten the status quo.  This tendency toward conservation of the status quo also can trend toward personality homogeneity as engagement becomes a priority in and of itself.  These tendencies become a real challenge to catalyzing change and innovation because the rebels, the introverts, the dissatisfied, and non-conformists don’t feel the love and don’t get a chance to “go negative,” rock the boat, or inject the internal tension that drives new thinking.  
This explains why when you think of innovative brands you think Silicon Valley.  Which has its share of highly engaged workplaces but also includes less engaged but definitely high-performing organizations like Apple, Oracle, and Amazon.  So our new verse on employee engagement goes like this: engagement is essential for long-term success but organizations also need healthy tension and a real marketplace of ideas—even if these ideas make us a little (or a lot) uncomfortable.  No tension.  No innovation.  So to go back to Monica Byrne’s remark, if organizations want to create value they need to introduce constraints in the form of debate, stress, dissent, and change.  As Ms. Byrne posits in her popular TED Talk, “But maybe life has meaning only because it ends.” We’ll end on that philosophical note.  
1. View an interesting interview with Jonathan Bendor, Stanford University, on Why Criticism is Good for Innovation
2. Ten Shocking Stats About Employee Engagement: https://www.cleverism.com/10-shocking-stats-about-employee-engagement/ (Martin Lueenendonk--CEO, Cleverism)