No Image Available

Tim Casserley

Read more about Tim Casserley

Employee engagement – align organisational aims with employee desires

Tim Casserley explores employee engagement and finds it is not as simple as some make out…



The steady rise of ‘engagement’ as a way of capturing the hearts and minds not just of employees but of customers, local communities and other stakeholders has been mirrored by ever-decreasing levels of public trust in organisations. The past two years of recession coupled with the behaviour of the banks in precipitating it and repeated examples of declining business ethics (Enron, Worldcom etc) before that, have taken their toll on the perception of big business and meant that engagement has taken a battering.
According to the latest research from Hay Group, British workers are the most disengaged and the second most frustrated in Western Europe. Similarly, a survey by Aon found that almost half of employees would leave if they could find another job. And the CIPD reports that less than a third of staff trust their leaders to act in their best interests. 
The mantra of employee engagement is that an unengaged workforce is also a low performing one. But given recent events, it’s not surprising that large sections of the workforce lack genuine engagement and commitment and are buckling down, simply pleased to have a job. 

"Meaning and purpose have to be satisfied at an individual level and cannot either practically or ethically be satisfied at a collective one."
One of the responses to this has been to encourage employees to find meaning and purpose through their work. In a recent article on ‘Manager on my tombstone – no thanks’, Pia Lee amplifies the views of Gurnek Bains (i) and others that the key to raising levels of employee performance is to provide "meaning for individuals beyond making money which in turn unlocks discretionary effort". Jim Collins’s study into ‘great’ companies in 2001 shows that "high performing organisations have a unique blend of core purpose and values" to which motivated employees align their careers in pursuit of "a purpose bigger than themselves".
Let’s ignore for a moment later research (ii) showing that since 2001, eight of the 11 truly ‘great companies’ unearthed by Collins have either been acquired or underperformed (presumably the three remaining ‘great’ American companies must be feeling the pressure just now!) What is the most likely outcome from organisations providing their people with a sense of greater meaning and purpose? Experience – as well as our research – shows that if it’s done effectively, employees start to believe their outlook and interests are identical to those of the organisation. Why should this be a problem you might ask? Well, if you are unable to distinguish between your own outlook and interests and that of the organisation for which you work, you tend to pursue your goals regardless, without bothering too much about your responsibility for others or what the outcomes of your actions might mean for them. When you put this beside the behaviour of the investment bankers as well as those in Enron and Andersen to which we referred earlier, you begin to get the picture.
Our research – published in 2008 (iii) – illuminated the dynamics in the relationship between leaders and their organisations that can either lead towards long term, sustainable success or business failure and derailment. We found there was a symbiotic relationship between work-addicted, highly absorptive corporate cultures and those whom the organisation regarded as its brightest and best. A large proportion of these rising young stars had little sense of self in terms of their own purpose and identity. The organisation supplied an environment in which they could get lost in the process of work, using it as a fix to get ahead, be successful, and avoid feeling (and ultimately avoid living). Providing them with a purpose to which they could align their careers had the effect of creating corporate clones – bricklayers rather than leaders – with little sense of personal integrity. It also created a fertile environment for job burnout to occur because it reinforced the unhealthy, co-dependent relationship they had with their work, in which the story of the organisation and their role within it had become their story.
Meaning and purpose have to be satisfied at an individual level and cannot either practically or ethically be satisfied at a collective one. Using work as a substitute for identity – for meaning and purpose in one’s life – eventually leads to anomie, where employees have no rooted sense of self or character, over-accommodate themselves to others and lose their moral compass and sense of purpose.
So if supplying employees with ready-made purpose is unethical and unsustainable at a human as well as business level, what’s the alternative for the enlightened organisation looking to sustainably engage its workforce? We believe it is to support employees in finding their own purpose and exploring how this relates to the organisation’s purpose. In essence we are proposing a transparent process in which employees explicitly negotiate the relationship between their own sense of personal purpose and that of the organisation.

"…we are proposing a transparent process in which employees explicitly negotiate the relationship between their own sense of personal purpose and that of the organisation."
In practice this means finding the appropriate forum for employees to play an active, conscious role in determining how they engage with their organisation. Leadership and other development programmes provide an environment in which this ‘negotiated engagement’ can be done safely and as part of an overall learning agenda. Having explored the organisation’s purpose and dominant cultural norms, get programme participants to define to which aspects do they feel committed? Which aspects do they simply accept – to which they do not feel committed, but equally they do not feel strongly enough about to change? And finally, which aspects do they seek to change?
We are not suggesting there needs to be a 100% correlation between an employee’s sense of personal purpose and what the organisation holds as important; but there needs to be enough of a connection to allow an employee’s personal purpose to flourish, and thus to make a career with the organisation sustainable.
The employee as powerful agent in relationship with the organisation is one of the key hallmarks of what we call ‘sustainable engagement’. It challenges the infantilising notion that employees are blank canvasses upon which corporate purpose can be painted, and makes the health of the relationship between the organisation and the individual employee central to organisation performance. Most of all, it avoids the risk of creating an army of corporate clones at the very time when we should be fostering a greater sense of responsibility and ethical practice in our corporations.
Tim Casserley is founder of sustainable leadership consultancy, Edge Equilibrium
(i) Bains, G et al. Meaning Inc. The blueprint for business success in the 21st century. London: Profile books.
(ii) Burgelman, RA and Grove AS (2007). Let chaos reign, then rein in chaos – repeatedly: managing strategic dynamics for corporate longevity. Strategic Management Journal, 28, 965 – 79.
(iii) Casserley, T and Megginson, D. (2008). Learning from burnout: developing sustainable leaders and avoiding career derailment. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.

4 Responses

  1. Appreciate, Value and Belief

    Great comments from all.

    In the final analysis, it comes down to whether the guys on the TOP who shoulder the leadership and management accountability have what it takes to appreciate, value and believe in the "people" factor of the business model.

    If there was, then EE would not become a tool, intervention or program of change!. What has now come to be called EE actually reflects very much the philosophy behind the culture of how people are treated on the jobs and in relationships. It would seem like pure common and obvious sense, but why then the cynical impression and pessimist ridicule?.  

    Yes, trust and respect for people has become a rare commodity in organisations, particularly those that continue to operate in C&C fashion and "WIIFM" mode. I had a similar challenge in my last company. I tried many methods to surface the ‘hidden iceberg" affects on EE. To take stock and bring awareness to the TOP, I suggested conducting a survey but, was shot down. I suppose finding the "truth" can drive fear and unbearable pain to some.   

    As the late CK Pralahad said, it’s difficult for people to see the "obvious" and to take the necessary remedial steps to correct it because they carry a dorminant logic in their value and belief system that’s looks the other way. Hence, he says, the forgetting curve is just as important, if not more, than the learning curve.   

  2. “Engagement” – a weasel word

    Personally I dislike the "engagement" word as it means different things to different people and is therefore meaningless.

    Yes there is a lot of talk about "engagement" but precious little success in doing it.

    It may look simple but so is a maze. Unless you have a map you get lost, make the wrong turnings and end up in dead ends.

    It is my experience that people who understand "engagement" already do it, value it highly and want to do it better. They tend to be market leaders, setting the pace for the rest.

    There are people who think "engagement" may be of value but don’t understand and are a little scared of loosening the management reins and letting people out of their cages.

    Finally there are those people who know all about engagement, know they are very good and are happy to sit back and wait for the accolades.

    If you don’t see that "engagement" is revolutionising your organization then you don’t have it.


  3. Are we not following the script?

    An interesting article with plenty of "factual insight". Perhaps we can look at the "conclusions" from another angle.

    The employee who fears for his or her job at a time when the economy is out of balance with the expected norm.

    Fear has it’s own drivers and these can be different for individuals, just as motivation differs for you and me AND can change daily. These are NOT DIFFICULT TO MANAGE except for fear itself.

    The role of the leader is to LEAD – tell me where we are now, where we are going and how WE are going to get there together. It also includes the good, the bad and the ugly and should express a joint view of HOW we are expected to cope with all of these. These are the common VALUES we are all expected to work with.

    (Without these managers cannot delegate tasks effectively or allow others to take decisions on their behalf).

    We (the employees) are PAID to do a job. This is a written formal contract – we know what is expected, what we can and cannot do.

    If you as my leader change the goalposts without letting me know then we are working at odds with each other. When this becomes an issue – then trust is dented. Keep on denting trust and we are left with a disconnect.

    Surprise – not really. "You boss, me follower". Now that I no longer know where we are heading – how am I to follow so I will make up my own rules, that is until you tell me that I cannot do this.

    I ask you what the new rules are and you tell me – what am I to do with this information now that I no longer trust you?

    Honesty and consistency are the drivers of trust, whether the information is good or bad – as long as it leaves me with MY CHOICE to go along or not, and for me to be as open and as honest with you in return – then and only then will WE be able to rebuild TRUST in each other.  This will not take long – it just needs good old honest and open communication without any of the brown stuff addded.

  4. More topics please!

    Hi Tim,

    Your article is very well written and makes a good point but is there really anybody who Doesn’t understand the importance of employee engagement anymore?  I would like to think that for most people working in HR and in any area of business for that matter ,that employee engagement is plain common sense than a ‘tool’ or approach we can use to facilitate a happier, more effective organisation.  I believe that if we (as an organisation – it is not simply HR’s responsibility although we do have an influential role) treat people like adults in the way we listen to people , the way we talk, the tone of policies and the way we guide, encourage, coach (and sometimes disagree!) we will as a by-product achieve the so called ‘holy grail’ of employee engagement.  I guess I’m saying I don’t think there’s always a need to overcomplicate things.  Sometimes the simple, straight forward approach works in even the most complicated/difficult/testing of environments.  Even if an organisation is in a critical state and a strategy for improving employee engagement is necessary I still think that most (if not all of us) understand and appreciate the practical steps that we need to take. 
    I’m sorry if this sounds like I disagree with your article per se, I don’t.  I would just be more interested in hearing your opinion or learning about other, less well documented HR topics. 
    Have a good day. I’ll take my soap box back in now!

Get the latest from HRZone

Subscribe to expert insights on how to create a better workplace for both your business and its people.


Thank you.

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.