The Good, The Bad and The Ennui

Rhett-ButlerIt is wonderful how much time good people spend fighting the devil. If they would only expend the same amount of energy loving their fellow men, the devil would die in his own tracks of ennuiHelen Keller

WARNING – I’m writing this to try and order some thoughts. You’ll have to forgive me if it is more of a ramble through the murkier outposts of my mind than usual.

Employee engagement. A hardy perennial for the long dark lunchtime of the soul in human resources. What is it? How will we know it if we see it? How might it be experienced? Is it even achievable? Is it sustainable? And what role might cognitive dissonance play in engagement?

The Good
I think it’s probably inarguable that happy people are likely to be more productive. Which makes them useful to any business lucky enough to have them. It’s also pretty obvious that some people seem pre-disposed to happiness. That is, they have a generally positive, optimistic outlook on all aspects of their lives and are naturally resilient in the face of setbacks. So, how might a person like this become disengaged? I imagine it’s most likely to occur when the acceptable behaviour of people within an organisation runs contrary to one’s own purpose or moral or ethical viewpoint. For example: I care passionately about the environment. People in the business leave the lights on after hours, buy bottled water and waste tons of paper. People in positions of authority in the organisation do nothing to stop these practices. What can be done? If they are in the minority, not much I suspect. It may take some time, but they’ll most likely leave. And if the behaviour of the people in the organisation runs contrary to the publicly espoused values or standards of the organisation they may very well choose to become a whistleblower. And whistleblowers are unlikely to be re-engageable.

The Bad
There is a dark side to the coincidence of individual and organisational purpose. I’ve written at some length on this previously but essentially it’s a Wolf of Wall Street scenario. A business whose purpose is to make obscene amounts of money at any cost, coupled with an individual with the very same aim. We’re still living with the consequences of just this scenario. But those are some of the most engaged employees of modern times. Both morally reprehensible but together highly successful (if likely to be unsustainable).

The Ennui
Work is a necessary evil. To be gotten out of the way as quickly and painlessly as possible. I’ll take your doughnuts and your survey but it won’t fundamentally change anything for me. Purpose is a quiet, undemanding existence, anathema to productive working life.

I guess what I’m proposing is that working life presents environments with a high propensity for cognitive dissonance. We could reconcile ourselves to that and stop worrying about engagement and focus our energies elsewhere. Nobody wants to be unhappy. Making people happy costs very little and takes very little effort.

There’ll still be a place for HR.

Happy Realists.



  1. […] My previous post generated a nice bit of chatter over on Twitter and, as I was tweeting back and forth with the very excellent Zoe Mounsey, a thought struck me. It was going to need more than 140 characters to wrestle with so I’ve hopped on here to unload my brain. […]

  2. Good stuff; thought-provoking. When reading or discussing topics like this, I find myself thinking about things like Hogan’s dark side and other measures that purport to identify the downsides of certain character-traits …
    The other thoughts that occur to me when considering the topic of employee engagement is to reflect on the fact that some people just don’t want to ‘get close and intimate’ with work (your ‘ennui’ I guess); even if HR or line managers tell them that they should!

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this blog.

    1. Really appreciate you taking the time to comment, Dave. Will check out Hogan.

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