The Narcissism of Employee Engagement

Much has been said about the crisis of employee engagement across organisations. Many organisations actively work to foster employee loyalty and discretionary effort. Little changes.  One driver is the narcissistic self-regard of many employee engagement efforts.

The Narcissistic Organisation

Narcissism is defined in psychology as an extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration. When we examine employee engagement discussions in organisation, much of the discussion reflects this trait. Whether this characteristic is a trait of the leaders of these organisations or even a good thing has been widely debated elsewhere.

I have been a part of many discussions that follow these themes:

  • The organisation not the employee is central:  The discussion revolves around the organisation its purpose, roles, benefits and processes, not employee’s broader purposes, lives or circumstances
  • The discussion is unreal: The only facts in a discussion are the satisfaction survey results. Much of the rest of the discussion is belief, assertion and opinion with little to ground that in the real world employees experience.
  • Employees should admire the organisation: Support for an employee’s issue with the organisation is a signal of disloyalty by the supporter. Failure of employees to admire the organisation is not a cause for reflection. It is usually a communication issue. There is little discussion of reciprocity of admiration or engagement by the organisation.
  • The organisation knows the fix: An engagement survey might use employee feedback to identify issues. Minor communication, role, benefit or process changes might be required but these will be determined by management based on survey outcomes, often without discussion of why or how to address the issue.
  • Need for Change is minor and peripheral: Employees need to be fixed. If the issue is not failure of employees to understand, it is failure of their leaders to communicate the benefits of the organisation. The core ideas, beliefs and processes of the organisation are beyond reflection.

Narcissist have terrible relationships. The constant demands for admiration and the lack of consideration for others is wearing. Narcissists struggle to see these issues because of their self-absorption. If our organisations approach employee engagement in this spirit it is no surprise we have made little traction for change.

Engagement is A Human Relationship

Employee engagement is a characteristic of a relationship between the employee and their colleagues. That relationship occurs in a whole series of conversations, interactions and experiences across the community in the organisation. How the organisation is viewed is simply an outcome of these human relationships.

We cannot change employee engagement without bringing that entire community actively into the discussion of the problems, the rationales, the needs and the solutions. Changing the dynamic of employee engagement requires organisations to make some key changes to their process of considering engagement:

  • Start in the real world: Nothing changes if employees feel the organisation is an unreal place and discussions don’t connect to their reality of the work and their lives beyond the organisation. The whole real world impacts their view of the organisation.
  • Involve everyone:  There is no ‘organisation’ without its people. Bring everyone into the discussion. Make sure the goals and solutions you pursue make sense to everyone.
  • Give employees the loyalty and regard you desire: Don’t ask for what you can’t reciprocate. If there isn’t a relationship, don’t try to pretend. It won’t work.
  • Have a conversation in a relationship: Let both parties talk. Widen the discussion to cover the whole relationship and its impact on others.
  • Connect the conversation beyond the organisation: The power of discussions on purpose and the organisational connection to customers is that they help ground engagement in the meaningful work of employees to help others.  They make the organisation focus on real issues.  An outside-in focus also changes the frame and can u


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