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Employee engagement… with what?


Engaged employeesChris Rodgers questions what we actually mean by the term ’employee engagement’ and suggests that the practice of engagement is getting ever more removed from reality.

Raising ’employee engagement’ has become one of the taken-for-granted objectives of modern management practice – fuelled largely by the ready availability of a multitude of questionnaires, surveys and models that purport to be able to measure and deliver it. But what do we mean by employee engagement and does the way it’s being pursued really make sense?

What is employee engagement?

There have been numerous attempts to pin down what is meant by the term and how to bring it about – whatever ‘it’ is. But very little agreement has emerged, either on a definition or on the factors that help to achieve it. So, I guess ‘you pays your money and takes your choice’. Often literally!

“Is employee engagement a state of mind, an emotional condition or a behavioural response? Or a combination of all three?”

The temptation here is to follow the well-trodden path of drawing together some common threads from the growing mass of literature on the subject. But I’ll resist adding to that particular confusion. Is employee engagement a state of mind, an emotional condition or a behavioural response? Or a combination of all three?

Is it personal to an individual or something that ‘permeates the ether’ of an organisation? Is it a generalised state of affairs or something that is specific to a particular situation, time and place? Or what? For now, I’ll just go with my sense that we all ‘know what it looks like when we see it’, even if we can’t explain it.

Causal link?

Most managers would (probably) agree that there is a correlation between employees’ mental and emotional states and organisational performance. However, the fact that there is a correlation between the two doesn’t of itself say anything at all about causation.

For some, the link is simple and obvious. Engaged employees (however defined) deliver improved business performance. This is the core rationale for the employee engagement agenda. Others, though, argue the opposite. For them, successful business performance is the cause of high morale and employee engagement; it is not the other way around.

So, in terms of cause and effect, the extent and direction of any link between engagement and performance is, at best, unclear. More than this, though, the complex social dynamics of real-world organisations mean that there are too many variables at play in any particular situation to be able to predict what outcomes will actually emerge. Or, when they do, what caused them.

Looking for linear, cause-and-effect links is an established part of management practice and seems like common sense. But it is a version of common sense that still sees the business world as ordered, predictable and ultimately controllable. People aren’t machines. The patterning of their interactions and the outcomes that emerge do not conform to the mechanistic, ‘do this and you’ll get that’ assumptions implicit in most – if not all – of the engagement literature.

Disembodied programmes and practices

And yet, undeterred by its general inability to pin down what it is actually talking about, the growing ‘engagement industry’ rolls on relentlessly. It offers managers the enticing vision of a happy, committed and productive workforce; provided, of course, that they attend to the particular ‘drivers’ of engagement that the prevailing model identifies as being significant. (As an aside, doesn’t the very notion of ‘driving’ engagement seem incongruous?).

And as its influence grows, the practice of employee engagement gets ever more distant from the day-to-day reality of individuals interacting with each other to deliver organisational results and live their own lives.

“Undeterred by its general inability to pin down what it is actually talking about, the growing ‘engagement industry’ rolls on relentlessly.”

Instead, it moves into a parallel world governed by anonymously completed employee surveys, corporate ‘engagement programmes’ and other well-intentioned but questionable attempts to get people willingly to ‘beat the corporate drum’.

In my book Informal Coalitions, I talk about ‘disembodied’ culture-change programmes. By this I mean the tendency of most conventional change strategies to treat culture as a separate building block of performance, which can be attended to independently of the structural aspects of the change process and everyday management action. In a similar way, the pursuit of employee engagement is becoming disembodied from people’s experience of everyday organisational life.

Engagement with what?

If the basic logic of the employee engagement agenda is flawed, what implications does this have for leadership practice?

Treating engagement as something that exists separately from specific, local activities, goals and performance is of doubtful value. Instead, I would suggest that the ‘real’ engagement task for leaders (at all levels) is twofold. First, it’s about helping individuals to make sense of everyday events and emerging challenges in the context of their local situation, and to act in ways that contribute to the achievement of both local and wider organisational objectives. Secondly, it’s doing so in ways that also resonate with individuals’ own aspirations and personal agendas.

This places the focus firmly on leaders’ everyday interactions with their staff: the language they use, the attitudes they convey and the behaviours they display. As in all aspects of organisational dynamics, though, leaders can act with intent but with no certainty of outcome. Everything they say and do – including everything they don’t say and don’t do – sends messages to staff. But it’s staff themselves, alone and in conversation with others, who decide what those messages mean and how they will act as a result.

So, engaged (and engaging) leadership is about paying attention to the content, quality and pattern of these day-to-day interactions and to the impact that these are having on employee’s:

  • orientation – leading to positive rather than negative perceptions, feelings and evaluations of specific organisational challenges; and

  • action – resulting in active rather than passive responses to them.

The challenge of employee engagement therefore needs to be seen as individual-, relationship-, task-, and context-specific. Otherwise, efforts will degenerate into little more than a performance cult, kept alive by the ‘life support machine’ of impersonal surveys, programmes and techniques.

When speaking about strengths in The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker argues that “there is no such thing as a good man [sic]. Good for what? is the question.” A similar logic applies to employee engagement. There is no such thing as an engaged employee. Engaged with what, is the question. member Chris Rodgers is an independent consultant and author of ‘Informal Coalitions’ (Palgrave 2007). For more information about his book, visit: Read Chris’ other article here: Organisational change: The messy reality

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