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So you want staff who are engaged?


Engaged staffStaff engagement is, of course, a major contributor to the success of any business, which is why the recent Sunday Times ‘Best Companies’ list is so well regarded. Yet, asks John Pope, what do we really mean by ‘best’ company and are we in danger of employees becoming too engaged?

The recent Sunday Times Best companies to work for list took account of the organisations’ policies, conditions and management as well as the views of the staff. There seemed to be an assumption that companies which are ‘best to work for’ would find it easier to recruit and retain their staff and that staff would be more likely to be ‘engaged’.

The standard of ‘best to work for’

I have some fundamental questions. ‘Best’ can be different for different people: Best for when? Best for whom? Best for what? ‘Best’ is a generalisation which we should examine and to do so we could go back to that trio of management thinkers – Maslov, Herzberg and MacGregor – whose work is now 50 or more years old but is still fundamental and regularly quoted in management reading. Collectively, the main points they made were that consistency of style and approach is important to people; people are more likely to be ‘engaged’ if the work is seen as worthwhile and lasting; and those in a real team with real responsibility will stick at their work despite the dangers.

“Others move from employer to employer in the search of something different whether it be experience, opportunity or reward.”

Best for when?

People’s needs from their work change as they age, develop, as their circumstances change and with experience. I am going to be guilty of some generalisations here but I make the following assumptions acknowledging there will be wide variations. When young they are more likely to explore and try out different employers. Many will not know what they are capable of and some will discover that they have an aptitude which their employer finds of value and which engages their attention for some time, while others do not and move from employer to employer in the search of something different whether it be experience, opportunity or reward.

Best for whom?

Those serving the public, for example, may have different views on who is best to work for to those working in IT developing new and exciting software, although both can require skills of a very high order which take a long time to learn. The experience they gain may not be equally valuable in terms of getting them to the top of their tree. The IT specialist might become a very well paid specialist in a field where recognition by peers is one of the motivators, or where growth in expertise and fame may be personally satisfying. However it might not be as financially rewarding as someone who started in a department, not realising where that job might lead.

Best for what?

The reward and conditions packages attainable in different organisations can be very different indeed. Some people will value the rewards but not the conditions, the burdens they impose and the commitment needed. And the range of commitments, the feelings of obligations to the employer, or to the team members, or even to the ‘customers’ or users, together with the recognition or non-financial reward it may bring can be enormous. The charity sector can get phenomenally high engagement from staff even though the conditions can be poor and, in some cases, the pay meagre or not at all.

You want them to be engaged?

There’s quite a range of people who are working in the organisation for quite a range of reasons. You inherited some of them, you recruited some of them, just as you inherited some of the aims and policies of your organisation, and created some. The first step is to be clear about what you really need and want for your business. You have to make sure that you and the management are committed to it and show that commitment consistently. Leadership by example is pretty powerful.

The second step is to spell out what it means in terms of behaviour and action, and what it means for the success of the organisation and its members. If you have been doing this for some time, you will only have recruited those who have shown signs of being the right material, and then indoctrinated them. They will know the aims, the policies, the way things are done, the attitudes which must be shown. Those will have been reinforced by example and peer pressure and illustrated by behaviour. And as long as the ‘contract’ between employer and employee is maintained and the aims are sound and accepted, you can have people who are ‘engaged’. You will recognise those who are fully engaged – you will take action on those who are not – if necessary clearing them out before misguided toleration of failure becomes infectious.

Are you sure you want engagement?

Those city traders and dealers who have been so much in the news were tough and unsentimental in their work. Many were looking for quick profits and deals, opportunities to do down other traders and were prepared to change employers if the rewards were not high enough. Maybe they were engaged with their work, enjoying the rollercoaster of thrills and spills, perhaps there are some jobs where being ‘engaged’ would not be productive such as jobs in a business ‘jungle’ where you might want predators.

Degrees of engagement

Some of those who you feel are engaged will be more committed than others; some will have a range of outside interests which take increasing amounts of their time to the point where becoming ‘master of their lodge’ is far more important than being an executive director. It is unreasonable to expect everyone to be equally engaged. If the work and the company of colleagues is not sufficiently stimulating and rewarding we must expect people to become progressively less engaged. This can apply in the commercial world, the voluntary service world, and the academic world alike.

“Perhaps there is a moral responsibility on the employer to make sure that staff do not work themselves into the ground or destroy their home-life.”

Can your people be too engaged? There can be people for whom the nature of the work, the surroundings or the people they work with are more important to them than home and family. Do you want people who are over-engaged? You cannot manage people’s lives outside their work but it is dangerous if your people get so much satisfaction from being at work that they have no meaningful interests outside it. Perhaps there is a moral responsibility on the employer to make sure that staff do not work themselves into the ground or destroy their home-life. Some professions can be very demanding and ‘burn out’ their staff in one way or another. It is important that engagement does not become over-engagement. Statistics show that many of those who retire without having developed strong interests outside their work do not collect their pension for very long.

Are you really engaged?

You want your staff to be engaged with the organisation and its aims. Of course, you have to be equally engaged with it and show it clearly by your behaviour. That can be quite hard; it means sticking with the organisation through thick and thin. Your staff can recognise the difference between real and pretend commitment. They can spot actors.

John Pope has been a management consultant for 40 years and has worked to improve the development and performance of managers and management teams at all levels for most of his career. He can be contacted at

2 Responses

  1. Degrees of engagement and committment
    Many thanks for your comment. I should certainly like a copy of the note you mentioned.
    In a short article I was not able to discuss the question of the strength of engagement which varies from time to time in individuals and between individuals who may have very different sets of values. My views, formed from experience rather than formal research is that strength is primarily a matter of relationship with the the manager and other team members, and with intrinsic job satisfaction and value of the work doneduct – most noticeable when there is a lasting valuable product. Maslow is more often quoted than read and there is a great deal more to learn from his writings than the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’.

  2. Code for Engagement
    Readers may be interested in a discussion document on a Code for Engagement in the NHS that defines engagement, and the attributes in leaders that fosters commitment, trust and engagement, together with the behaviours and culture that stimulates engagement. email me for a copy.
    The top 100 companies results this year still shows that 49% of companies have a staff turnover of 16% or more. Whatever the reason for turnover (and 50% of reasons cited are to do with psychological distress) the costs to companies of this level of staff turnover can be astronomical. One company with over 1800 staff has an annual turnover of 53% – imagine the expense! A staff turnover of single figures is what is needed to be really successful and 21% of the top 100 companies managed this.

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