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Is there always something to moan about?

When I train groups of non-HR managers and ask them to guess the average engagement index across the whole of the UK economy, they almost invariably guess between 20% to 50% When I ask them why they guess so low, many of them will say: “Because British people love to find something to moan about”.

Others guess the text book answer that I'm looking for, that poor engagement are a consequence of the quality of leadership and line management across sectors being so low. But those who go for the moaning theory may be on to something.

A few years ago I was privileged to be invited to the UK headquarters of a world famous developer of internet-related services. Even from the look and feel of the place, you could see why this had consistently been rated as the most sought after employer in the whole country.

Their head of HR showed me around one large workspace that included a self-service, all-day buffet which looked like something out of Harrod's food hall. Then much to my astonishment, he took me through a set of doors where there was a free restaurant for proper meals. Perhaps even more surprising was that nobody I saw appeared to be overweight – a result of free gym membership, no doubt. The working environment was casual, creative, buzzy, cool. No stuffed shirts since suits and ties are only required for sales visits. He told me that their pay is the most generous on the market and, as long as people work hard and smart, no fuss is made if they want to take extended holidays.

This and all else he told me seem to tick every box in terms of what should satisfy and engage a workforce. So I had to ask him: "Given all that bounty, is there anything that your people still find to complain about?" He explained that indeed there was: The company had a very flat structure and, therefore, people were not happy about the lack of career progression opportunities.

I recently read that since then employees of that company have not only found more things to complain about (11 to be precise), but they've even gone public about it on a social media platform. Top of the list is still the lack of opportunities for promotion. Hearteningly for those of us who believe that lack of confidence in line managers is the root of much disengagement, this did feature in the list. But then again, so did gripes about there being too much fun at work, and that it's all a bit too cool.

Money didn't feature in the list at all, which seems to bears out the theory that money may be a demotivator if it's too low, but of itself it doesn't motivate and engage.

If you believe that engagement is really important, there's a salutary lesson to be taken from all this – namely that perhaps you can try too hard. Or perhaps it's that enforced fun at work is nausea-inducing rather than engaging. Or is it simply the case that my trainees are right and that there's no getting past the fact that folk in this country will always find something to moan about, no matter what you do for them?

Another interesting spin on this is that a well established employee survey company recently did a piece of global research on engagement. They found that the country with the most highly engaged workforce is India, although I have seen no explanation as to why this is the case. Is it because leadership and management practices in India are ahead of the rest of the world? Or is it simply that Indian workers are less inclined to find stuff to grumble about?

Helen Giles is HR director of Broadway Homelessness & Support and managing director of Broadway's Real People, a social enterprise HR consultancy.

Twitter: @HelenMJGiles