Rethinking Employee Engagement – In Conversation with David Mallon, VP and Head of Research at Bersin

David Mallon, Vice President and Head of Research at Bersin, talks about one of the biggest business dilemmas in modern times – employee engagement. David addresses key challenges in employee engagement and provides insights on how the C suite can navigate around these roadblocks to create a culture of engagement. David holds an M.S. in Digital Media from the Georgia Institute of Technology and is the pivotal force behind Bersin’s maturity research for the past decade. He brings a brings a unique, integrated perspective to helping organizations solve their most vexing workforce challenges.

Tell us a bit about your background. How did you end up working for Bersin?

My career started in the internet/telecommunications industry, working in and around call centers. I ultimately started down a path that would take me into the world of learning & development, and learning technology. Along the way, I developed a passion and interest for how organizations develop and support the performance of their workforces. And I came to know Josh Bersin and team. Eventually, the opportunity came to jump from taking advantage of Bersin research to doing the research.

For young adults who’re entering the full-time workforce for the first time, how important is it for them to receive regular feedback?

Feedback is essential for everyone – especially new entrants to the workforce. We need feedback to be able to make course corrections, to know where and when to do more or less of something or to do something differently. And we need feedback to help us understand where our basic assumptions on what we were trying to do were more or less correct in the first place. In other words, feedback is essential to learning. And in today’s workplace, learning and work are essentially one and the same . We can’t learn or work without feedback.

Many organizations believe that fun work environments, hefty paychecks and unexpected perks are the keys to driving employee engagement. Is there a cost-effective employee engagement strategy that smaller organizations with limited resources can deploy?

In short, first offer purpose and then offer opportunity. Believe in something as an organization. Have a mission and be authentic to it. Give employees something to be a part of, to own and identify with, and to want to carry forth into the world on their own.

Then – because the organization is smaller – and therefore probably can’t afford to hire a bunch of specialists to do specialist tasks, celebrate that people get to wear multiple hats. Create intentional and mindful opportunities for employees at every level to stretch, to experience, and to be involved in key moments that matter for the organization.

Why do employees fail to buy-in when companies try to ramp up engagement?

First and foremost, it’s because most companies address engagement as a separate (and abnormal) process. It’s a medical procedure that is “done” the organization every once in a while.

Many organizations fail to see that engagement is a measure of the deeper relationship between the employee and the organization. These organization don’t recognize that listening to employees should be a never-ending, always-on, two-way dialogue.

And they should be prepared to actually do something substantive with what their employees tell them. Employees sense immediately when the organization is just going through the motions, or just looking to address symptoms versus root causes.

What do you feel are the biggest challenges for companies executing an engagement strategy?

Lack of clarity as to WHY they are focusing on engagement (symptoms vs root cause), lack of true sponsorship (interest, willingness, capability to actually change based on employee feedback), lack of real understanding as to what to measure (types of questions to ask, when, to what levels, data calibrated to what purposes), and lack of trust (believe that employees actually might know best, believe in common purpose, assumption of best intent, willingness to risk, willingness to share the future with employees).

With technology coming into the picture, how can organizations start using workforce data to create a culture of engagement?

Recognize that the traditional annual survey has its place (assuming proper sponsorship and informed strategy). Then go beyond that traditional notion of engagement to create a never-ending, always-on, two-way dialogue with employees. Collect active feedback and passive sentiment in many ways. Feed that data back to teams and team leaders. Make these new feedback loops just a normal, healthy part of how the organization works every day.

As more organizations adopt the “Virtual Workplace” model, how would you advise CHROs or CEOs on engaging a virtual team?

  1. Over-communicate and overshare.
  2. Co-create explicit communication norms with the team (when to use chat, when to use email, when to cc, what’s a good communication look like, etc.). Share broadly.
  3. Create and given plenty of support and space for “virtual watercooler” moments.
  4. If you are going to be virtual, be virtual. Go all in. Don’t create artificial and arbitrary barriers such as only letting certain roles or processes, or projects happen in certain places. Don’t create classes of employee (those that get to be in the in-person meeting vs those that are on the conference bridge). Allow everyone to work everywhere.
  5. Be willing to get everyone together in person every once in a while, with time for non-business interaction.


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