It is not surprising that our latest survey of how 427 companies are persuading workers to improve productivity in today's uncertain economy finds growing numbers of employees now are motivated primarily by basic provisions of employment – job security and pay. They are only secondarily influenced by employers' efforts using the latest "employee engagement" fad.

In 2002, well before the Great Recession, we visited 427 manufacturers nationwide – 32 being foundries and diecasters – asking executives how they were trying to persuade employees to make greater on-the-job efforts, and which ways were most effective. ("Improving Your Profitability Pattern," Foundry Management and Technology, September 2002.) We repeated the survey five years later ("Work Harder, Work Smarter, to Motivate Your Employees," FM&T, November 2007), as the Great Recession was just starting, and again in early this year, during its sullen recovery. Trends in the metalcasting industry's efforts to persuade employees to improve on-the-job performance — and the effectiveness of these efforts — are shown in the following chart.

The chart documents five important facts:

  • First, due to the 2008-2009 recession's impact, workers now focus on basic rewards (job security) and economic motivators (the value of their paychecks.)
  • Second, short-term economic motivators like Gainsharing that match employees' short-term horizons had the greatest impact on productivity.
  • Third, employees expect "extra" rewards for any "extra" efforts asked of them. Fulfilling these expectations is critical to the long-term success of any new initiative for boosting productivity and eliminating waste. If the "extra" is absent, employee cooperation is short-lived.
  • Fourth, although many employers have reemphasized "engagement" efforts to influence employees' behavior, employees considered these to be of only secondary importance. Economics remained their priority.
  • Fifth, jargon has gone steroidal. Efforts to improve worker performance were called "motivators" in 2002 and "involvement efforts" in 2007.  By early 2012 these efforts had become "engagement." "Engagement" has morphed now into the "science of engageonomics," at least by those promoting the latest jargon and trying to sell their version of it.

Don't misunderstand: there are advantages to jargon. It gives those using it an aura of omniscience. Because it is not well defined and its goals are vague, jargon can mean anything its practitioners say it means, and the positive results they claim will be just as specious as is their jargon.

As to jargon's disadvantages, one can recall marketing guru John Sculley, recruited by Steve Jobs to run Apple. In 1991, the Wall Street Journal reported Sculley declaring, "… We have a new agenda … empowering individuals." Apple's mid-1990s near-death experience let the world know the effectiveness of Sculley's vague empowerment efforts.