3 Types of Employee Engagement Advocates: Which type are you?

by cv harquail on May 17, 2010

Is there ever a time when our reactions don’t reflect our own perspectives on an issue? The whole wisdom behind the dictum: “Seek First to Understand” turns on our awareness of the near-impossibility of uncoupling our initial reactions from our personal standpoint.

Our experience with an issue, as well as our general world views, are always triggered by potentially contentious topics. We need to recognize this not only when we respond to a topic but also when we interpret how other people are responding.

Yes, that is what I kept telling myself last week, as I read all the comments and emails about my “Doubting Thomasina” post of last week, 3 Reasons Why Employee Engagement is a Scam.


The links between experience & worldview to the reactions showed up as three different types of responses to the post. Coincidentally , each type of response reflects one of the 3 Types of Employee Engagement Advocates.

Most of the responses on the blog as well as the emails I received with links and suggestions (thank you!) came from one particular type, yet all three were represented in one comment or another.

Given a brief explanation of each of the types, can you tell which one fits you best?

The 3 Types of Employee Engagement Advocates are:

  • The Pollyadam1 / Pollyanna
  • The Transactionalist, and
  • The Tempered Radical

The Pollyadam / Pollyanna

The Pollyadam believes in the value of employees’ engagement to each individual employee. S/he expects that offering more meaning and fulfillment to the individual in exchange for more productive effort from that individual has no inherent conflicts. It’s a win-won for both employees and employer.

The Pollyadam has no concern about whether the employer organization really intends for employees to be fulfilled, or whether it’s the employees or the organization who has the power to define fulfillment. S/he expects that most business are ‘good’, and where organizations aren’t good there are protective limits to their badness. There is no concern that the organization may gain proportionally more than the employees, or that any lopsidedness might be undesirable.

The Pollyadam just won’t look at the downsides or complications of Employee Engagement. Thus, s/he dismisses concerns about Employee Engagement as something prompted by an incomplete understanding of how capitalism works, or by garden-variety cynicism.

The Transactionalist

The Transactionalist sees Employee Engagement as the latest in a long line of superficially attractive, potentially profitable organizational programs.

If the Transactionalist is a manager, Employee Engagement looks like a great program to espouse—you get more productivity and more employee ‘satisfaction’ along with the added benefit of looking like an inspiring leader and all-around good guy. Talk about a win-win win!

If the Transactionalist is a consultant, Employee Engagement looks like a program that can be sold to management on the basis of productivity promises, and to employees as a sign that the organization cares – an easy win-win.

Whether a manager or a consultant, The Transactionalist recognizes that Employee Engagement is not something that can easy to implement or quick to achieve. Employee Engagement works well enough to show results and is a continuously moving target, so it’s a profitable, long term gig.

The Transactionalist doesn’t care about potential conflicts for the employees and the organization. The Transactionalist may or may not see the potential downsides for employees, and s/he may or may not see how Employee Engagement can be used in an exploitative way. This is often (although not always) because The Transactionlist is ultimately on the side of the employer – and understands Employee Engagement as something that the organization does ‘for’ employees in the service of overall profitability.

The Transactionalist and the Pollyadam are codependent partners in crime. Working together, they make it possible for employees to be misled (and disappointed) while employing organizations take over more and more of the employees’ being. Working together, they make real change and authentic engagement impossible.

The Tempered Radical

Enter The Tempered Radical. The Tempered Radical sees not only the inspiring promise of Employee Engagement for both employees and organizations but also the reality of poorly executed, cynically motivated initiatives.

The Tempered Radical recognizes that Employee Engagement is the latest iteration of a long line of humanistic workplace programs intended to mitigate– or maybe even erase– the tensions between employee interests and employers’ interests. S/he sees and takes aim at the power imbalances that keep these tensions hidden.

The Tempered Radical has an ulterior motive. S/he has a different understanding of what work organizations might become, and wants to use our current interest in Employee Engagement as a vehicle for transforming the world of work, and the relationship between work and the rest of life.  The ultimate goal of a Tempered Radical is not just an engaged workforce that finds meaning in work, or a company made productive through inspired effort, but a work/business environment that leads to flourishing across economic, social, and personal systems.

The Tempered Radical works to motivate managers and employees (and even shareholders) towards a different understanding, speaking about the vision without sounding like a naïf. The Tempered Radical also works to keep ‘business realities’ salient, so that employee desires, organizational desires and stakeholder needs are pursued in ways that keep the organization healthy. Thus, The Tempered Radical embraces efforts to identify, clarify and prompt conversation about conflicts and tensions that are ‘built in’ to most Employee Engagement programs.

S/he still understands that there is a long way to go before this vision can be realized, or even understood, by a majority of businesses, and The Tempered Radical is in it for the long haul.

As Reflected in the Comments

While I was surprised by the amount of response to 3 Reasons Why Employee Engagement is a Scam, I was delighted by how the comments were dominated by Employee Engagement Advocates of The Tempered Radical type.  Yes, there were a few Pollyadams and one or two certified Transactionalists who commented publicly or shared their views with me backstage, but it was heartening to see just how many readers were ready to engage directly with the concerns I raised.

Although a person’s type has a strong influence on their response, context is important too.  Often, I find that the Pollyanna in me comes out strong when I’m confronted by a Transactionalist. Similarly, when I’m in a room of Pollyannas I seek out the Transactionalist just to keep things anchored in reality. But, almost always when I’m with a Tempered Radical (especially one who’s more radical than tempered), I feel inspired.

How about you?

Have you figured out which type you are?

Even more important, have you figured out which type of Employee Engagement Advocate you want to be?

See Also:3 Reasons Why Employee Engagement is a Scam

Image: “This is so me”  from giveawayboy. With a shout-out to JoLo, who subscribes to both.
1 Pollyadam is a term I coined, in the spirit of semantic akido, both to flag and resist the tendency to see naivete as a predominantly ‘female’ trait.


Cali Yost May 17, 2010 at 2:53 pm

I like to pride myself on being a Tempered Radical but I, like you, can be drawn by situation and circumstance to either the Pollyanna or Transactionalist extremes. Excellent post!


jamie showkeir May 18, 2010 at 1:29 pm

CV, Another insightful job. I would consider myself a Tempered Radical – though sometimes more ‘radical’ than ‘tempered’ when it comes to redesigning work and organizations for both results and connection. For me at the heart of ’employee engagement’ is transparency that allows conversations about the choices we all make regarding our engagement of work, life and each other. Choice is a powerful thing. Creating authentic conversations about these choices, their consequences, potential results and the nature of our connections pave the way to engagement creating more authentic organizations.

cv harquail May 18, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Jamie, your comment makes me think of something I read this morning, by @SusanMazza, on Life Lessons in Focus & Choice, which you might find resonates with your own views. cv

Adrian Bashford May 18, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Clearly you are indicating the 3rd option as the desired state, and I would love to say that is what I aspire to.

My challenge comes from where the moral obligation lies as a practitioner. Much like an HR professional, who often has to walk the fine line between employee advocacy and their first responsibility to the ‘organization’, this perspective and obligation comes from how the ‘organization’ is defined.

Your criticism of the ‘transactionalist’/’pollyadam’ lies in an absence of concern that the organization may gain proportionally more than the employees.

What if you view the ‘organization’ as the employees?
.-= Adrian Bashford´s last blog ..Comment on Leadership Weekly Digest – 2010WK19 by Adrian Bashford =-.

cv harquail May 18, 2010 at 3:00 pm

Hi Adrian,

You’re totally right that (at least in this post and the previous one) I’m not thinking of the ‘organization’ as the employees, but more as ‘the management that serves the stakeholders’. I’m not saying that the organization isn’t composed of the employees, but that most businesses aren’t designed for or intended to serve the employees. In my view, it’s much more desirable to have the employees be the primary stakeholder, so that their engagement serves themselves, each other, and their shared purpose more or less equivalently.

Pollyadams wish the business was fair, Transactionalists don’t care that it’s not fair, and Tempered Radicals think that the whole model should be changed.

I have also thought hard about the situations we consultants find ourselves in, when the programs we’re advocating are open to being abused by or likely to abuse either the business or the employees. I don’t think that any of us wants to enable abuse simply becuase we have to prioritize the interests of the people who are paying us. I am always excited to hear from consultants/colleagues who make this concern explicit when they accept engagements.
Not sure if that answers your question… Thanks also for the heads up about your own Human Dynamics Engineering org/blog/site : http://psycheconsulting.org !!

UncommonJulie May 18, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Great observations! I must fall into the tempered – or perhaps full – radical category as I’ve never met an employee engagement program I’ve liked. Mostly because “engagement” is something the programs or practitioners try to DO to people rather than EXPECT of them. Though my work now (to inspire purposeful engagement in work) sounds a bit pollyana-ish, the premise is that individuals are responsible for getting and staying engaged. Now, it’s true we haven’t educated people to take on and manage this responsibility what with traditional high schools and college failing to provide an effective method of exploring and pursuing what one might do in life (and thereby be more likely to get and remain engaged) but I’ve finally found something that shifts the focus from training HR and OD people to engage employees to training employees to get engaged (or not) and be responsible for their decision.
There is some very cool research being done in the neuroscience/ neuropsychology fields that is helping to return accountability and capability to the individual in terms of getting purposefully engaged in what they choose to do. My hope is that this research and the practical applications coming out of it will not only help organizations but better equip schools to prepare students to pursue and secure satisfying, gratifying work.

cv harquail May 18, 2010 at 4:35 pm

Hi Julie-

The shift in focus to expecting engagement from employees is a useful one in many ways– it puts responsibility on both business & employee, and encourages employees to press for interesting work, work that is worthy of their efforts.
One caution I have is that expecting (or even nudging) engaged behavior from employees needs to be met by organizational systems (job design, leadership, product qualities) that make engaged work possible. We don’t want to tell people to steer their own boat, and then give them a boat without a steering wheel!

Another caution I have is that, in general, I’ve experienced more employees who want to be responsible but aren’t given the opportunity, than I’ve experienced employees with responsibilities they don’t / won’t fulfill. And, of that second group of employees, I’ve seen their disengagement as the result of having their spirit squeezed out of them, or even extinguished. When it comes to diagnosing ‘lack of engagement’, I don’t want to blame the employees without also looking at the whole system.

This is not to say that we can’t take the business side or see the business case, but rather than both employees and businesses have gotten accustomed to disengagement, and both will/can/should change. cv

Adrian Bashford May 18, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Thanks CV (for your thoughtful comments on my comment),

The pitfall I am trying to avoid is when employees look at their organization as something other than a collection of people who decide to reside under the same banner for some self-interest.

It is an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality that many employees get into when they get upset with their company. When you try and peel back the layers, asking who ‘they’ are, inevitably they point at anyone they don’t have a daily interaction with, often known as ‘middle management’. If they were to take the time to understand & observe those people, they would find they are doing things for good reasons based on imperfect information. Those that are doing ill to others, purely for self interest, are a rare breed in my experience.

Starting with the expectation that others are first and foremost going to try and be manipulative and self-serving will not lead to any productive outcome in a practice that relies on the ‘common good’ to some extent.

Instead, assume the ‘common good’ is served by temporary imbalances in the returns from EE, but EE dies when it becomes apparent that those imbalances are maintained in perpetuity. How the imbalance is perceived has a lot to do with how each unique perspective measures it. My goal is to help create the positive feedback loop. If there is a break in the loop it just doesn’t work.

And I hope I’m not just being naive…
.-= Adrian Bashford´s last blog ..Comment on Leadership Weekly Digest – 2010WK19 by Adrian Bashford =-.

Leigh Branham May 19, 2010 at 6:39 pm

CV, I followed the thread from your previous “Scam” post, found it very provocative, and wanted to respond but didn’t have the time.

Your posts are providing a public service–stimulating some deep thinking about a superficially-understood topic. As an author/speaker/consultant on employee engagement (latest book–Re-Engage, see http://www.re-engagebook.com), it alarms me that employee engagement is being looked at with cynicism by significant numbers of employees. This was brought home to me while reading a Dilbert cartoon from Dec. 2009 where Dilbert’s boss declares to the assembled staff, “We need more of what the management experts call ’employee engagement’…I don’t know what the details are, but I think it has something to do with you idiots working harder for the same pay.” Dilbert responds: “Is anything different on your end? Dilbert’s Boss: “I think I’m supposed to be happier.” I believe the Dilbert strip to be a fairly accurate barometer of employee attitudes, so I think that strip captured a valid, if highly cynical, perspective.

We “Tempered Radicals”, who believe there is as much in it for employees as for employers when engagement is done right, have our work cut out for us. We recognize that there are more company leaders who are into “rolling out” engagement “programs” and “initiatives” than there are those who are authentically interested in building cultures of engagement. We have a challenging task before us to balance employer and employee advocacy. It begins with the contracting phase of the consulting assignment where we have to gauge the depth of the CEO’s commitment, and we need to have the courage to turn down the assignment when the commitment isn’t there.

Derek Irvine, Globoforce May 22, 2010 at 8:46 am

I like that. Tempered Radical. Our approach certainly is radical in thought, if not in temperament.
.-= Derek Irvine, Globoforce´s last blog ..Recognition: How Much Will This Cost Me? =-.

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