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Georgia Kerr

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Who owns engagement?


The importance of employee engagement is a proven factor to having a positive impact on the bottom line. For an organisational strategy to really embrace employee engagement it needs buy-in from the highest echelons in order to be a success, as well as buy-in and commitment from those on the ground too.

Traditional views of engagement focused on the commitment-based elements of the term. Survey after survey in organisations have found different ways of measuring good citizenship behaviour, strong effort, ‘going the extra mile…’ but the thinking, and research, behind this term has moved on. As well as highlighting the financial risk organisations take when they don’t address engagement, last year’s Macleod Review did an exceptional job of bringing together a number of different pieces of research and definitions to give a broader definition of engagement – having a sense of personal attachment to one’s work and organisation, being motivated and willing to give one’s best to help their company succeed and, crucially, gaining a strong sense of psychological wellbeing through work.

So does this full engagement definition make it easier or more difficult to know who owns the term within organisations? On the face of it, this broader definition can sound more difficult and technical. Or at the very least, it can give the impression that not much has changed, and to achieve an engaged workforce lies primarily with individual managers motivating their staff. On the contrary, this more holistic definition of the term makes it more straightforward in terms of who ‘owns’ engagement in the workplace and what can be done to improve it: the answer is everyone from the CEO to line managers and employees. Let’s look at each ‘role’ in turn.

It is a well known truth that any organisational strategy needs buy-in from the highest echelons in order to be a success. The CEO, as the pinnacle of the organisational structure, has a duty to espouse the messages and values which the organisation follows. It’s so often the case that CEOs put considerable effort and resources toward engineering the corporate strategy, the corporate vision and even the list of corporate values yet they seem to be unaware of what forces can prevent said strategy from being delivered successfully. Not surprisingly, employee engagement is often the critical missing factor.

Albeit cheesy, the term ‘Chief Engagement Officer’ springs to mind to emphasise the key role the CEO plays. Operating in a vacuum and being out of touch is never a good position to be in for anyone, let alone for the CEO. The CEO can, and needs to, take actions above and beyond strategy creation in order to bring vision into life, raise internal awareness and help to create a passionate workforce. The key to doing this is to keep engagement on the agenda and work with the organisation’s divisions as one team to avoid the silo effect of numerous agendas and strategies running in parallel.

The days of the CFO focusing on hard financial results and targets are long gone. As with the CEO, the CFO needs to buy into the values and overall strategy of the organisation – and ideally should be involved in shaping these visions. From there, the CFO is in a unique position to be able to bring to life the financial benefits of an engaged workforce and the only way to do this is to work with the HR/organisational performance function to properly understand the drivers to engagement unique to every division/team within the organisation, and quantify this understanding into meaningful financial language.

HR director
This is perhaps the most important role in terms of ‘operationalising’ the engagement strategy within an organisation – as long as the HR function is seen as a strategic business function, which it so often is today. For the HR director, the responsibility in terms of engagement lies in seeing beyond the traditional siloed structure of responsibilities and initiatives (recruitment, talent management, health and safety, for example) and creating a vision and strategy of how these responsibilities can add value and actually work together to create an engaged workforce. This is often deemed too difficult or too conceptual. Although the first step is often a case of simply acknowledging that there are a range of outcomes of that HR either owns or can strongly influence (engagement being one of many) and then working out how the efforts of these departments can be integrated and aligned to improve the engagement of the workforce and, in turn, add value to the bottom line.   

An example of engagement ownership within the HR umbrella lies within the talent management function. Developing strategies for ensuring the right people are matched to the right roles and are sufficiently developed to take forward the organisation’s strategies and values is key aspect of talent management. It is the HR director is then in a good position to work with talent management to bring it in line with the overall engagement strategy.

Line manager
As we work our way down the organisational hierarchy, we reach the fundamental role that line managers play in ‘operationalising’ strategy ‘on the ground’. Line managers play a key role in managing and influencing the engagement levels and performance of those in their teams. They are in the privileged position of being able to convert strategy and vision into meaningful targets and objectives to suit the individuals and culture of their own teams. These ‘mini-cultures’ within organisations, created and fuelled by line managers, serve not only to create the complex web that allow organisations to function but are the necessary antidote to the ‘one size fits all’ philosophy which clearly does not work in reality. Line managers who are given license to convert organisational strategy and vision into meaning for the individuals in their teams and, perhaps most importantly, line managers who recognise that they have this role and impact and regularly review the engagement of their team members, are the ones who really own engagement and make a positive difference. 

And finally, we have reached the employee – the person who makes up the fabric of any organisation, the organisation’s ‘most important asset’ and the person we are normally talking about when we discuss ’employee engagement’. But it’s not enough to discuss the employee in terms of how we measure his/her engagement. The employee does have a responsibility and role in owning engagement as much as managerial and directorial roles do. What can the employee do? Is it enough to duly fill out the engagement survey year in year out, however honest the feedback? Put simply: no. Employees need to take a share of the responsibility for their own engagement, using the tools available to them both inside and outside of the organisation such as training and career opportunities, one-to-one discussions with the line manager, colleague and family support, performance feedback. And with these tools, the employee needs to be in a constant state of self-examination of their own career aspirations and goals. Do these fit with where the organisation is going? If not, what options are open to me? What can I do to improve my levels of engagement right now? It’s about being honest with themselves and the organisation and proactively making suggestions, seeking guidance and making changes if their levels of engagement start to suffer.

Georgia Kerr is a consultant at
Robertson Cooper

4 Responses

  1. MacLeod didn’t get it right either!


    I agree with Glyn’s comments completely and would add a couple more. Firstly, Macleod didn’t get it right in that everything in the report called for doing things to people rather than with them. Secondly, engagement is not a verb but rather a noun, i.e. people feel engaged when as a result of looking at the work they do, people take control over how the service is designed to deliver better results for the customer. The job of the manager is to act on the system and remove obstacles – not manage the people. The job of the executives is to set the overall vision and change the way they think about organisations, about mangement and about human nature and motivation.

    No one owns engagement, rather everyone owns the conditions which determine whether people feel engaged. When I help organisations to deliver better service, reduce costs and improve morale and engagement, we did absolutely nothing to the people. We simply provided them with a method to check how the work currently works and then to redesign it.


  2. It’s time corporates based more of what they do on WE thinking,

    Sustainable business performance in the 21st Century requires joined-up thinking,joined-up responses,and joined up doing.

  3. Employee engagement


    Isn’t one of the fundamental challenges we face the way that we visualise our organisation? You mention the need to avoid the silo effect, but the structure of your post mirrors the downward journey through an organisational hierarchy.

    Leading thinkers (Deming and others) have challenged us to see our organisations as systems focussed on the needs of the external customer. Instead, we set up functions that have little awareness of the entire system, reward managers based on how well their functions are doing, create plans that do not cut across departments, and measure things that are important to the manager not the customer.

    How can we engage employees in the continuous improvement of our products and services when the world that they see is, like Dilbert, shaped as a cubicle?


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