Sound Advice or Self-Promotional Noise?

A colleague of mine sent along a recent posting from the Last Word business advice column from Inc. Magazine today.  It was written by Steve Tobak, a coach and consultant from Silicon Valley who enjoyed success with a couple of IPOs during the heyday of the tech boom.  In his latest column, Mr. Tobak declares why employee engagement is not important and should be, basically, ignored.  In his opening paragraph, he asserts that employee engagement is simply a rebranding of employee satisfaction and goes on to state that these surveys don’t do any good.  The first comment either lacks a fundamental understanding of the difference between engagement and satisfaction, or is simply dismissive of the concept.  The second comment appears disconnected and, quite frankly, a bit of nonsense. In what way does a survey ever resolve anything?

Mr. Tobak goes on to comment that some experts don’t believe there’s a correlation between employee engagement and business performance.  His evidence for this is provided in a link to another coach-written article from two and a half years ago that is cursory at best, and goes on, when the author is citing a study from the American Psychological Association, to actually contradict himself.  Mr. Tobak provides another link to an additional opinion piece to support his perspective that employee engagement is a racket.  Not coincidently, this piece also focused on surveys and not on initiatives.  At no point did Mr. Tobak reference the seminal study published in the Harvard Business Review® that demonstrated companies that engage both their associates and customers, on an emotional and cognitive level, enjoy a 240% improvement in financial performance.  Nothing was cited from studies from the fields of affective neuroscience, contemplative neuroscience, social neuroscience or applied behavioral economics either.  Each of these fields have clearly demonstrated the biochemical affect that connection, engagement and emotional well-being has on an associate’s state of coherence, psychological flow and entrainment; all key biological states of being that support creative thinking and higher, cognitive processing.

The piece goes on to focus on the anecdotal, failed execution of managerial initiatives which we’ve all been witness to in the past.  Just because an enterprise fails to execute on an idea doesn’t mean the idea, in and of itself, was false.  It simply points to poor execution.  Mr. Tobak closes his argument against employee engagement by describing a mock (his word, not mine) interview he conducted with one of his executive clients he is coaching.  Yes, a sample size of one.  He asked his client, out of a list of four groups, who’s interests should he serve first.  He shared his client’s priorities: 1. Customers, 2. The Boss, 3.) Internal Customers, 4.) The Employees.  While I sincerely agree with placing the customer first and foremost, is it any wonder this executive is in need of coaching?  So, using a shifting set of examples that never addressed engagement (a focus on surveys and an obviously biased set of assumptions) and the opinions of two columnist and one coaching client, we have the results.  According to Mr. Tobak, employee engagement doesn’t matter.

A bit stunned by disbelief (I assume Mr. Tobak is a bright, competent individual), I looked into some of his other columns.  What became readily apparent was the sound-bite nature of his work.  Everything is written as a list of superlatives or dangerous perils we must avoid.  After reading several columns, and one in particular in which he also dismissed Emotional Intelligence as another fad (the science has been rolling in for nearly twenty years on EI and its impact on organizational fitness, so I’m not sure you can still call it a fad), it became obvious that Mr. Tobak writes for sensationalism and positions himself as the contrarian as a point of differentiation.  It’s easy to knock down progressive thinking and continue to wave yesterday’s management banner.  It is simple marketing 101.

When disingenuous writing is used to drive traffic to a site a funny thing eventually emerges; the contrarian contradicts themselves.  On Mr. Tobak’s website, he quotes Lao Tzu:

He who knows men is clever;

He who knows himself has insight.

He who conquers men has force;

He who conquers himself is truly strong.

Sounds an awful lot like self-awareness and self-regulation to me; the first two tenets of Emotional Intelligence.

© 2012, Terry Murray.

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