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Rusty Cars and Employee Engagement

Rusty Cars and Employee Engagement

I continue to give deep thought to employee engagement and am having many discussions with others about the topic. Employee Engagement, HR, HR Strategy, Effectiveness, Leadership

To best reach a shared understanding, I found myself using an analogy, which I will share here.

On occasion, our cars develop rust. Rust is ugly and mars the sparkle and shine of the car’s exterior look. Not only is it unsightly, but the rust, if left unattended, will spread and cause damage to the car.

Having driven a car with rust, I know I can drive the car for a long time, knowing the rust is there and ignoring it. However, over time it will spread, usually under the surface, and in ways and places I can’t imagine. The destructive power of rust is insidious.

I drove a nice looking Honda a number of years ago, and after having some body work done on the passenger side quarter panel, a couple of dents and associated rust were gone. The car looked sharp. It absolutely sparkled. The body shop did a great job — or so I thought.

When I picked up the car there was no indication of damage or rust. It looked like new.

A year later, I noticed the paint was bubbling. A month or two after that, pieces of paint flaked off. I looked more closely and noticed rust.

Lots and lots of rust. Rust had spread all along the quarter panel, and deep into the chassis and infrastructure of the car. Not good.

When we look at solving for employee engagement, often solutions much like that used by this body shop are deployed. The surface gets covered. We layer on some Bondo body filler and paint and get ready for the next survey.

We cover the rust. We try our best to sparkle for the survey. The results are not great. We wonder why the sparkle doesn’t result in more sustainable outcomes.

Painting over the rust is very short-term. Short-term might be a year or even two years. However, during this time period, the rust, the employee disengagement beneath the surface is spreading — it does not get better just because we don’t see it.

It takes discipline on the part of human resource practitioners and senior leaders to dig for the rust and to cut the rust out. While this hard work is taking place, the quarter panel of my car might not sparkle. I have to choose to drive it while it does not sparkle knowing we are fixing, remediating deep below the surface.

Yes, going after engagement is tough. However, even tougher is making the decisions necessary to allow the deep cleaning, the culture formation, the infrastructure building — being willing to look beyond the survey next quarter and fix that rust for the long haul.

If we do not do that, our engagement efforts will be cyclical — shine it, survey, rust pops out, shine it, survey, rust pops out even more, more shine… you get the idea. Get deep under the outer surface of the car and scrub out the rust.

Questions to ponder:

Are you shining things up in time for the next survey? Have you identified where your rust spots are?

Are you digging deep and using time to eliminate and heal the damage caused by rust?

Are you approaching engagement as a long-term business proposition, rather than a cycle of survey to survey buffing and shining events?



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Philip Espinosa partners with people to deliver value: People | Partnerships | Value serves as his tag line. As a strategic human resources leader, he believes that service starts with the customer. His book "Deliver Excellent Customer Service with a SNAP” helps others drive customer engagement using simple and consistent communication strategies. A second book titled "Focus On Your Success - 24 Simple Insights To Drive Daily Achievement" (ebook) helps working professionals view their daily choices through a different perspective. In addition to his writing, Philip works with strategic human capital initiatives and has delivered successful results over a career spanning more than 25 years.

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  1. I love this analogy between employee engagement and rust in a car. I have also had the same situation and I when it was covered up and left unattended it caused so many more problem that by the time it was discovered it cost thousands more than would have if it was addressed right from the start.
    As a business consultant for over 15 years I have seen the results of “rust” being painted over so it looks good and the damage this does. Leaders, take heed of Philip’s advice in this article, get to the root of your employee engagement issues then take action. Until you do all you have is a shinny car that is really falling apart under your ‘seat’. By the time you really see the problem as it is, the cost will be substantially higher than if you addressed it right from the start.
    Philip that you for this analogy, I must let you know I will snagging it with due credit given to you. Janice Whiting ICOM4

  2. Good analogy. From my experience, we need to start with an understanding of what constitutes “employee engagement.” Too many senior leaders think it is about parties, sports teams and social activities but truly that is “painting over the rust.” Real engagement happens when employees feel their work has meaning, they are recognized for their contributions and uniqueness, and they can see themselves making progress. It is about creating an environment where people know their work is valued, which in turn inspires most to do more, to be willing to give extra effort to achieve meaningful goals. The power of an engaged workforce is substantial though, and worth the effort it takes from leaders to make it happen.

  3. This is a very good analogy. It reminds me of the iceberg analology – we see what is above the water level and a little beneath the water level thinking that it will be easier to go under it to achieve the outcome/goal. But as we go beneath the water level, we discover that the majority of the iceberg is below the water level just like you discovered that the rust had already penetrated beyond what was initially addressed. This is where I would say Ms.Stack alluded to with respect to what constitutes engaged employees and whether all factors dealing with this topic have been initially addressed or is always addressed to truly eliminate any issues with employee engagement. The ‘workforce’ is one component that has a stake in the game but ‘sr leadership’ also has a stake in the game – have each been effectively addressed?

  4. It is wonderful to find these kinds of articles. As a prof trying to reach our “leader of tomorrow” and get them to understand the importance in building leaders and understanding the difference in Leaders and Managers it is nice to find others with similar understanding. Keep writing and I will keep reading!

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