No More Painkillers for our Employee Engagement Pains!


Samin Saadat
Executive Director

Workforce problems are becoming more complex, and managing this complexity is becoming more important than ever. Companies work hard to stay competitive by investing a lot of money and resources on employee training and engagement programs, but they still lose an immense amount of money due to lack of productivity. This is incredibly important because disengagement at work has been negatively impacting individuals’ well-being and their families, companies’ cash flows, and the economy at large.

In other words, we keep investing more resources to overcome workforce obstacles without considering our own contribution to the obstacles. How much more money do we need to lose to understand that our approach to employee engagement is not working? How many more jobs do we want to switch in the name of finding “meaningful work”? When are we going to reflect on our approach to solving complicated problems? As an example, if the sales team cannot meet their target, we provide higher incentives for them. If there is insufficient housing; we build more houses. If we have a problem with traffic; we build more roads. If there is food scarcity; the solution is to increase food production. Maybe it’s time to pause and re-think our solutions!

Peter Senge has found new approach to our complicated problems through “System Thinking”. System Thinking enables you to obtain uncomplicated fundamental solutions to complicated problems.

What is System Thinking?

Let’s start with an example to help understand what System Thinking is: First, a disengaged employee is perceived by their employer as someone who either does not have the right skills to do the job or isn’t responsible enough. Then, the employer provides feedback to help the employee improve their performance. (In the image below, “destructive” is in brackets because employers do not see the cause of the problem clearly. Thus, any feedback could be destructive to employees and leads to poorer performance)

From the employee’s point of view, there is lack of confidence in their own strengths or in the company, which leads them to either blame themselves or the company for not having opportunities for growth. As a result, their performance drops.

If we take both linear perspectives into account, we end up with a Systematic Viewpoint (ie. System Thinking). Here, the employer responds to the employee’s lack of accountability/skills by providing (destructive) feedback on their performance, leading to the employee’s lack of confidence in themselves or the company. The end result is a two-way blaming game, fuelling the fire of poorer performance. The cycle will continue till either the employee quits or the employer lets the employee go. System Thinking shows the whole structure and helps us focus on the interrelationship of the points rather than their individual qualities.

In contrast, a Linear Viewpoint describes a scenario where each side focuses on their own short-term goals and responds without considering any long term negative impact to the system. One explanation for why we still use a Linear Viewpoint could be our tendency to find comfort in applying simple and familiar solutions. Thus, we keep repeating these so-called familiar solutions over and over again because they’re obvious to us, even though they don’t lead to desired outcomes.

A great example of how companies still use a Linear Viewpoint is organizing social events as a solution to cultivate meaningful relationships. However, meaningful relationships are achieved when teams can speak openly together about what is important to them; when they can learn together, fall together, win together and hold each other accountable. However, social events are mostly symptomatic solutions rather than fundamental solutions

Who is Responsible?

Although a Systematic Viewpoint can help us understand employee engagement problems and see the system as a whole, it complicates the perception of responsibility. The most common response we hear is “there is nothing I can do, it is the system.” From a Linear Viewpoint, when things go wrong there is only one locus of responsibility; “It’s HR or management team’s responsibility.” All in all, it ends up in a blaming game.

On the other hand, with System Thinking there is no segregation of responsibility; we are all part of a single system. As leaders and professionals, we need to join forces and master System Thinking. We need to give up the assumption that there is an individual/agent responsible for creating an engaged workforce — everyone shares the responsibility. This doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone can equally influence the system, but it does mean that blaming will not lead to any desired outcomes.

Master System Thinking and Everyone Will Win.

System Thinking is now needed more than ever, as we are all increasingly overwhelmed by the complexity of the workplace. Leaders and professionals should encourage everyone to see issues from a Systematic Viewpoint. This will allow them to create long-lasting fundamental solutions that stop the pain of employee engagement once and for all, rather than take painkillers to mend symptoms.

We are spending the most valuable years of our lives in workplaces where we want to reach our full potential and find meaning in what we do. Therefore, it’s also our obligation to participate in restructuring our viewpoint towards employee engagement, see the system as a whole, and invest our resources wisely.

Human’s brains, behaviour and interactions with their environment never fail to impress Samin Saadat. After spending long hours in psychology labs at UBC and completing her Masters at Sauder School of Business, she entered the workforce and observed a gap between what research suggests and what companies actually do to increase productivity and profitability. Now, Samin is on a mission to bridge this gap through Jalapeño Employee Engagement by leveraging technology to bring research findings into live — to help companies save millions of dollars and to enhance the quality of life of individuals.