Employee engagement: the good, the bad and the ugly

employee engagement
HRM online

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written on April 7, 2017

At the John Lewis department store in the UK, they call the employees ‘partners’. It isn’t just a word bandied around to make people feel more engaged, they have a genuine focus on their staff. It’s a reflection of a management belief that they have a shared responsibility for the consumer, and that the way the company treats their staff is the way their staff will treat their consumers. As a result, everyone in retail wants to work there. But employee engagement doesn’t always work this well. And in the gig economy, where workers aren’t considered employees at all by many companies, behavioural psychology is being deployed in a way that can even work against employee self-interest.

Inevitably, it is Uber that is a master of employee manipulation, as reported in the New York Times exposé on this topic, How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push Its Drivers’ Buttons

When demand for drivers peaks, local managers for Uber in the US are urged to use all kinds of techniques to get drivers to move to particular locations, such as adopting female personas in text messages, as they have been found to be more persuasive. Uber also tries to keep drivers working when they are inclined to knock off. By gathering information on how much their drivers want to earn each week, they will send message alerts such as: ‘“You’re $10 away from making $330 in net earnings. Are you sure you want to go offline?”

So what, you may be thinking. The drivers are making money. No one is putting a gun to their head.

Where’s my motivation?

Consider why we do what we do.

Extrinsic motivation is when somebody works for a tangible reward, such as their salary. Intrinsic motivation is what we want for ourselves; things we would do regardless of external recognition. They’re both important.

Although an employee may join an organisation for the money and benefits on offer, they may come to believe in the organisation’s goals, both because those goals are worthwhile and because the employee learns that when the organisation succeeds, they succeed. This growing understanding comes from promotions, salary bumps and professional development.

(Of course, other HR functions help achieve the same thing, including work flexibility, growing a positive culture of respect, etc).

But such organic development is not really possible in the gig economy, because there are no promotions, no salary bumps and no real opportunities to learn skills that will help the contractors or “independent business people” get a better job. They’re not considered employees by the company so there’s no seniority, no benefit to long service. So it’s difficult to argue that when the company succeeds, they succeed.

In fact, due to certain dynamics in the gig economy, the opposite is often the case.

The dark side

So how do you achieve intrinsic motivation in a situation like that? Well humans have certain cognitive triggers, behavioural adaptations we have evolved to help us thrive but that can be manipulated. This manipulation is much easier to achieve in a contractor relationship, where you have fewer responsibilities and interaction is almost exclusively conducted via a phone app.

One of the most basic and powerful methods is to provide positive feedback. Everyone is motivated by goals and progressing towards them. According to the NY Times, Uber found there was a drastic drop in driver attrition after their 25th ride, so they implemented push notifications to warmly remind new drivers as they closed in on that number.

This might seem fine, and much like your manager evaluating your performance and providing encouragement, except that it’s automated. If your manager encourages you, that probably means they’re invested in your career, and that if you do well they’ll notice and you’re likely to be rewarded. Uber’s feedback doesn’t involve another human, and means little long term.

Similar to this is the gamification concept of badges – little graphics Uber sends to let you know when you’ve worked hard, provided an entertaining ride and so on. Again, they get you to internalise the company’s goals while costing them nothing. And yes, they do work. In the NY Times story there’s a particularly poignant moment where a driver, who quit riding for Uber because he was running at a loss, is still proud of his badges. Imagine earning a company money while not making enough for yourself, and being proud because they emailed you some congratulatory emojis.

So, who would you prefer to work for: John Lewis or Uber? Or is that like comparing apples and pears?

The fact is that isn’t going away, and as we move towards wider automation, and the job market increasingly favours flexibility in workers, the temptation for companies to cut costs by creating as one-sided a version of engagement as possible might only grow.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Can you think of other examples, outside the gig economy, where engagement is gamed rather than earned? And do you think this is a trend we’ll see in the future of work?

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