Commscrum Belgium–Mike Klein
To be sure, the intentions behind the “employee engagement” movement of recent years were more-or-less honorable, to create working environments where employee participation was appreciated, and to ensure organizations used language that didn’t discourage such participation out of hand.
But as time went on, a prevailing definition for “employee engagement” came to indicate “the discretionary effort contributed by employees,” (as if there was such a thing as “non-discretionary effort” in organizations that benefit neither from slavery nor sleepwalking). Moreover, many in the internal communication industry leapt in as offering “employee engagement solutions” that could help generate extra-special-discretionary effort well beyond that warranted by what their clients were willing to reciprocate with.
Such efforts, in turn failed to protect many from outsourcing and recession. The frequency with which I’ve heard ‘I was engaged, but I got fired’ from my fellow unemployed internal comms pros, indicates evidence of a perverse one-sided inversion of the original intent of “employee engagement”, one not lost on those who’ve survived those troubles. And yet, not only is this deemed acceptable in some quarters, but the route suggested by many traditionally-minded folks in our industry (and in HR, to be fair) to move organizations beyond the layoffs, outsourcings and upheaval of recent years is, guess what, “more focus on ‘employee engagement’”.
No way. Indeed, it’s time to kill the term “employee engagement” and spread its ashes all over Iceland. To our industry, it’s become no less toxic than the term “sub-prime mortgage” in the finance world.
Don’t get me wrong. We need engagement all right.
Internally, we need “two-way, cards on the table, let’s come to grips with the new world of business’ engagement”. We need a kind of internal engagement that openly addresses employee expectations about transparency and the viability of business strategies—and facilitates mutual recognition that employees are representatives of their businesses inside and outside working hours and need to conduct themselves accordingly. And, for organizations to win, they need to create a kind of engagement that aligns the best things those organizations have to offer with the best things that employees (and other stakeholders) have to contribute.
We also need a kind of engagement that respects (and where apt, incentivizes) different kinds and degrees of engagement—so that if the goal isn’t to turn everyone into a smiling 20-year service award winner, but perhaps into innovators, change agents or even competent but temporary staff, the tone and policies of the an organization appropriately reflect this.
I’m not saying “disengage”—indeed, it’s time to engage. Not capitulate, not self-flagellate, but really, deeply and powerfully engage. In as many directions as required. And not hide behind a sweet-smelling but easy-to-see-through fig leaf called “employee engagement”.
Dan Gray – Commscrum Riyadh
For once, let me see if I can get in ahead of KK with a few views that I know we share…
Above all, there’s one line in this post that cannot be emphasised enough – “We need a kind of engagement that respects (and where necessary incentivises) different kinds and degrees of engagement…”
Amen to that. Context is everything!
There’s a reason that Treacy & Wiersema’s “value disciplines” continually top the unofficial Gray-Keohane (or is that Keohane-Gray?!) index of top management models. It’s that, in nailing a company’s colours to the mast of operational excellence, product leadership or customer intimacy, it forces the organisation to consider how they structure themselves accordingly.
The underlying dynamics, systems and processes – including those related to communication – are, or at least ought to be, completely different, depending on that choice. (It’s why one of Indy’s earlier comments about creating a seamless offering across comms and organisational consulting is absolutely spot on.)
Likewise, there’s a reason we repeatedly return to the subject of situational leadership. It ought to be self-explanatory that the kinds and degrees of engagement necessary vary dramatically between, say, a team or organisation in crisis mode versus one that is already highly-motivated and working well.
Anyone who peddles the myth that there is a universally applicable set of engagement drivers and “solutions” for improving business performance is, frankly, talking out of their hole!
Engagement is far less a process than it is a state of mind. It is, by definition, subjective and different for each individual and collections thereof. Some get their kicks from the freedom and opportunity to be geniunely creative; others are just stoked when their numbers add up!
One final thought – if we truly believe in the power of diversity (as all HR departments and organisations profess that they do these days), then it is also, by definition, in a constant state of flux. If we truly respect and value difference, then the group dynamic is redefined by each new member.
Lindsay Uittenbogaard – Commscrumming from The Hague
As Mike says, the original intentions were good – my understanding is that employee engagement was originally a way of involving staff in organizational developments so that they could contribute to and share ownership of the journey and the results. Call me naive, but I don’t think there was ever any perverse thinking that purposefully twisted that good intention to squeeze the last energy out of people. I just think employee engagement is difficult to implement and even more difficult to find sponsorship for. A lot of people who try it haven’t seen best practice, don’t have the experience, warp their plans through compromise and simply mess up.
Engaging employees successfully is tricky because firstly, most big organizational decisions do not benefit from being discussed en mass, so its critical to identify the more detailed parts of strategic decisions that can benefit from the input of multiple perspectives and ideas. Based on this then, secondly, once an employee engagement has programme been well designed (assuming for the sake of this discussion it is for a specific purpose, rather than as an ongoing mindset), it is even more difficult to implement that plan because staff and leaders alike are riddled with biases, political pursuits, motivations or criticisms that can color their views on what should change, could change, and how. Their schedules are also a force to be reckoned with because at least the beginning of any engagement exercise has to be face to face. Finally, if you can get your leaders fully behind this so that you have the resource and support that you need, and you’re coming close to a miracle.
I would guess that because so many well-meant attempts to engage employees have led to less than positive experiences and outcomes, the meaning of employee engagement has taken a negative spin. Maybe we should be blogging about what works and how to get it right rather than about changing the name.
Dan writes about the importance of context and it has always struck me that, just like how the Myers Briggs Type Indicator tool breaks down personality characteristics into 16 traits, there must be a similar way of classifying communication contexts. It would be great to see proven approaches to different communication challenges set out based on their various contextual differences. Employee engagement would be one of those challenges well worth investing that prep time in – it is one of the more inspired strings to the communication bow, after all.
Kevin Keohane – CommScrum London
Nothing gets my back up quicker than someone coming in and challenging the definition of what “engagement” is: there’s a guy on the conference circuit who always begins his presentations with “It isn’t about engagement – it’s about involvement.” As if involvement is somehow absent from everyone else’s definition. So I agree with Lindsay, let’s not waste our time or anyone else’s splitting hairs about the definition. I think we know what we are talking about here.
To me, as Mike says, engagement got slightly perverted by two issues. The first was a belief that, thanks in no small part to the Measurement Mad, suddenly it was about moving numbers on reports up – if the “drivers of employee engagement” were identified, and actioned, and the numbers went up, people were therefore engaged. The second was the continuing lack of joined-up/cross-silo cooperation among internal functions — so “engagement” from the HR perspective tended to be all about The Gallup Q12 and making sure the employee experience was positive; while from the Brand and Marketing side of things it was all about wthere you had Brand Champions, Sideliners, Mavericks, or Major Losers (you know, the 4-quadrant model of who was and wasn’t engaged in living the brand and delivering the right experience to the customer). Seldom did the ‘twain meet. That ties into Mike’s point: most of the benefits are pointed inward (the business benefits of employees liking coming to work) or outward (the business benefits of employees focussed on customers), all of which benefits the organisation … but also ends up looking like a Mexican standoff.
I don’t think the focus on business benefits is a bad thing at all; it’s how you get resource released to do what we do. What needs to happen is a more holistic view and a disciplined (that’s right Dan: a Value-Disciplined) approach to it that all points inexhorably to one thing. What that thing is depends on what the business is trying to achieve and how it is going to get there (and more often than not you’ll need your people to get there so why on earth would you separate them?).