Boosting Engagement

September 29, 2009


The Economist ran a great article recently called “The Pedagogy of the Privileged.” It was a sharp criticism of how little business schools have done to reform themselves in light of the recent economic crisis. In my opinion the criticism is well deserved. Here is point they make in the article that has been a particular concern of mine for the past several years:

The original sin of business schools is boosterism. Professors are always inclined to puff the businesses that provide them, at the very least, with their raw materials and, if they are lucky, with lucrative consultancy work. HBS has produced fawning studies of almost every recent corporate villain from Enron (which was stuffed full of HBS alumni) to the Royal Bank of Scotland. A taste for cheerleading has been reinforced by the rise of a multi-million-dollar management-theory industry. Professors with dollar signs in their eyes are always announcing the birth of the latest revolutionary management technique or the discovery of the hottest new “supercorp”.

Business schools need to make more room for people who are willing to bite the hands that feed them: to prick business bubbles, expose management fads and generally rough up the most feted managers. Kings once employed jesters to bring them down to earth. It’s time for business schools to do likewise.

Engagement has certainly benefited from boosterism. You will rarely see an academic criticize the Gallup Organization and their employee engagement materials in published academic research. One big reason for this is the most important gatekeepers in the field of positive organizational behavior – those that review and approve articles submitted to top academic journals for publication – have all benefited from Gallup sponsorship.

Here is an advertisement for the 2006 Gallup Leadership Institute Summit (click here). That is an impressive list of sponsors. Gallup funds chaired professorships and a $250,000 Clifton Prize for research on strength-based leadership.  Look at their list of senior scientists and meet just a few of the engagement gatekeepers.

Do you think any of these powerful gatekeepers will ever allow research to be published that might refute the concepts of employee engagement or strength-based leadership that Gallup sells? I am skeptical.

There is little incentive to pursue a line of research that challenges where the powerful gatekeepers and their corporate sponsors want to take any given field. Take it from a scientist – sound research is not always what it appears to be.

Related Posts:

Engagement Soup

The Responsibility for Self-Engagement

Employee Engagement: Off to see the Wizard?

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Comments (2)

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  1. Wally Bock says:

    Now that’s a thought-starter of a post, Bret. What you describe is not unlike what seems, increasingly, to be the case in science and medicine. We have scandals where ghostwriters have prepared articles on research, studies that indicate that physicians are more likely to prescribe medications of the companies to give them significant benefits, and the usual cluster of stories about faked or influenced research.

    It shouldn’t be a surprise that business schools and their latest business fad are similar to other institutions. But that doesn’t mean the issue is unimportant. One problem for all academic research is that the peer review process does a good job of assessing procedural validity, but a poor job of supporting research comes to conclusions outside the current norms.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    The peer review process is a very important one, and in general it does a great job. But keep in mind that the people that run the journals understand they have to sell copies. No sales – no journal. There is a strong bias to only publish significant findings – findings that confirm or extend a current theory. Someone will have a much easier time publishing a study that shows a relationship between engagement and performance because that’s what the editors are looking for. It will be VERY difficult to publish data that shows a nonsignificant relationship. I know from experience. Thanks! Bret