Time to Say Good Night to “Employee Engagement”?

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?).

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48 thoughts on “Time to Say Good Night to “Employee Engagement”?

  1. Sean Trainor says:

    Oh no, here we go again with emotive language and soundbites like “goodnight to…” “the death of…” “dethroning… ” “movements…”
    Yawn. It’s almost getting as boring as the concepts that are being challenged in the first place!
    Forget the models, the definitions, and all the charlatans in the business that have been (and still are) dining out on the ambiguity of EE. It’s easy to blog about what doesn’t work and it’s commercial suicide to blog about what does. I imagine that those few that have real insight in this space are most probably unlikely to feed the next generation of charlatans.
    I will throw in one strong view – it’s not about driving performance it’s about realising potential, there is a subtle and very important difference.

    • kevinkeohane says:

      And you worked in branding? Heaven forbid we engage emotion to raise interest.

    • Sean Trainor says:

      I agree that “employee engagement” is damaged goods, especially when the link is made to an even more damaging expression “discretionary effort”
      The harsh fact is most employees exert so much mental and physical energy at work (not always positive) that they have little ‘discretionary effort’ left. The bit remaining is used up in the pub complaining about how busy they are.
      I hope the definition of employee engagement can be universally re-defined without re-branding. making a stronger link with innovation and brand will help achieve this. We know when we are getting there when people perceive engagement as “making it easier to do the right things around here” NOT “floggings will continue until morale improves”
      But there is hope. I attended SimplySummit last week and David Macleod is finally recognising the importance of brand and innovation (despite ignoring it in his report) he also committed to engaging with the IC community (not just HR) to move his endeavours forward. People are starting to listen, and it looks like they are starting to get it.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kitty Hawke, Mike. Mike said: Looking at: Time to Say Good Night to "Employee Engagement"?: Commscrum Belgium–Mike Klein To be sure, the intenti… http://bit.ly/aIMyRM […]

  3. Mike Klein says:

    2 things:

    1) With our words we create our world. Definitions are important, particularly if they define expectations and form the basis for relationships. I think the expectations that have become loaded into the term “employee engagement” run counter to effective and honest practice, hence the term should be overthrown.

    2) If “engagement” or (choke) “employee engagement” is really about realizing potential, why don’t you differentiate on that–call yourself “uberpotentialrealisation” and challenge the “EE” paradigm rather than embrace the failed “EE” terminology and expect your potential customers to figure out why you are different and better.

    Personally, I think if we can get another half-dozen strong and vocal EE critics to mount a challenge to the term, the paradigm, and what they represent, we can generate demand for alternative approaches. Conceding on the terminology is the easiest way to fail at this.

    Mike Klein–The Intersection, Brussels

    • Sean says:

      Mike, I’ll raise you by 1..
      (1) we always come back to this point. I say “semantics” you say “world creation”. You say “change the name” I say “raise the game” The term has some currency, if you change the name you’ll get into the same debate 2 years down the line.
      (2) Mike, there are too many reasons why I wouldn’t call myself your suggested name. I don’t really want to open this debate into the realms of branding and differentiation.
      (3) Sounds too much like New Labour to me! Or in organsational terms let’s look at HR. Labour dept (c. 70s) – Personnel dept (c. 80s) – Human Resources (c. 90s) – People, Human capital, HR., etc (naughties and beyond) New names, same old world.

    • Sean Trainor says:

      I’ll raise you 1…
      (1) we always come back to this. You say “world creation” I say “semantics” you say “change the name” I say “raise the game”
      Let’s call the whole thing off.
      (2) I really don’t want to personalise this debate into my company differentiation and branding but I do differentiate my service and there are a multitude of reasons why I wouldn’t call my company what you suggest.
      (3) all sounds “new labour” to me. Or even HR. Remember
      Labour Dept. (c.70s) – Personel Dept. (c. 80s) – Human Resources (c. 90s) – People, Human Capital etc (naughties and beyond)
      New names, same old world.

      • Sean Trainor says:

        so good I said it twice (oops)

      • Dan Gray says:

        Now, now, gents – there’ll be tears before bed-time!

        Funny, I had a similar debate with myself a while back (the first sign of madness?) on the relative merits of CSR vs. Sustainability – http://bit.ly/8YMByv.

        I can see both sides. The pragmatist within me agrees with you, Sean, that it’s what you do that counts, not what label you give it. Trouble is, Mike’s not wrong either. That label – like it or loath it – is the first signal of intent, and it pays to consider closely what that signal is sending out.

        I’m sure there must be a point of synthesis out there somewhere but, still weighed down by my fabulous Saudi lunch (I ate camel today, and it was bloody lovely!), I’ll be damned if my ‘opposable mind’ can figure out what it is!

      • Sean Trainor says:

        I haven’t taken the hump.

  4. For Dan and Lindsay, the context and traits you are looking for are culture. Read Trompenaars, Hofstede, Hall, etc. and you’ll find your dimensions. The problem with the engagement model and many other business models is that they have almost all come out of one dominant culture (largely US, but more widely the so-called Anglo-Saxon culture) and are not appropriate for other contexts where people have different values and other cultural traits that affect how they learn, work and interrelate as well as what motivates them.

    Kevin, I am perplexed, because it is sounding more and more like you just don’t like quantitative measurement. I don’t believe in measurement just for its own sake, but how you can know if things are working if nothing is measured (even if some of the indicators are imperfect)?

    • Indy says:

      Definitely agree that a lot of failures come out of assuming a generic model of “engagement” and/or “motivation” that doesn’t fit in all places. (One of my commercial failures has been a failure to convince people of truth of this to the point where they’ll actually spend serious money on doing things differently!)

      However, I think Dan and Lindsay are pointing to an extra problem – even if the engagement model fits well with the cultural traits of my Indian workforce, there are massively different requirements between good times and bad times.

      Too often, this is simply not recognised – the formulas for “best practice” are invested in a core, with small adjustments for different situations – but it’s not always valid.

      (Those different requirements are of course culturally specific again…)

    • Dan Gray says:

      Quite familiar with my Geert, Fons and Ted thanks, Kristen (wouldn’t be much good out here in Riyadh if I wasn’t).

    • kevinkeohane says:

      It’s OK to be perplexed.

  5. G’day all, it is possible that engagement was a champion thoroughbred that we flogged until it became a dead horse.

    But it was better than two way symmetrical communication when it came to explaining to CEO and other senior managers what we were trying to achieve!

    I’m not a huge fan of labels either (see my very first blog post at Geoff’s Gobbledegook), but they can be useful marketing tools. The number of these debates is really amazing. I saw another recently between Steve Denning re his High Performance Teams and his term Radical Management, and a group of well known story advocates who believed he was abandoning the faith. BTW if you haven’t read Steve Denning’s stuff, you really, really should.

    Certainly we can allow language to limit our universe, create paradigms or erect barriers, but I would need to see some pretty strong evidence that this has actually happened in this case, and I think the uncertainties expressed earlier about precise definitions would argue this hasn’t happened.

    There are visions and values, and if the label engagement gets you the cut through to persuade and influence an organisation to move closer to its vision and values, then so be it. It certainly does in government organisations. So my bottom line would be that it is still about what you do, not what you call it. And Mike was still referring to concepts that sounded a lot like they could be generally covered by terms like engagement or participation or connection or involvement to me.

    I refuse to get started on measurement otherwise I will carry on like a pork chop about how we know communication works because there is no field of human endeavour in which communication is not an essential element, and that measurement is about whether we work, not whether communications work. And I don’t want to do that.

    Cheers, geoff

    • Dan Gray says:

      Great comment, Geoff, with a truly awesome final paragraph. Go on, do it!!!

    • kevinkeohane says:

      Geoff, We must meet or speak as soon as possible. Skype?

      I’m not against quantitative measurement. I built the employee research practice for a consulting firm long ago, so DON’T GO THERE SISTER. I love it in fact.

      HOWEVER, as I have grown up and matured, I have developed a healthy scepticism about the data it can generate and how those data are used, particularly on an ongoing (read; incremental improvement) basis by certain HR and IC folks.

      For example, I have seen “drivers of employee engagement” improve year on year in some businesses investing £250k in annual employee surveys, while EPS drops and key staff leave and attracting the best people fails. Clearly communication and engagement is only part of the cause and context, but in reverse they’ll be the first ones to crow and wave their engagement data around like excitable puffins.

      Dan and I have said it before, the question is – are you measuring the right things? In the right way? Are you able to generate insight and action as a result, or just pretty PowerPoint presentations about your data?

      • I’m just reminded of a time back in the day when working for a major Technology company and dissecting their employee survey and engagement drivers stuff. We vamped and shredded a lot, and we did generate some insights.

        And I worked with my rocket science stats guy to ride the data, We rode it hard indeed. To the point where we programmed an artificial intelligence to predict the responses to certain items where we had insufficient data based on the profile of individual respondents answers to other questions. Statistics is just a guess about the likelihood of repeating a response or event based on math, it isn’t magic (though I believe it appears to be to many numerically challenged communicators).

  6. Graeme Ginsberg says:

    A very interesting debate.

    If we’re truly trying to ‘engage’ (or perhaps ‘X’) employees, isn’t it about time we properly asked employees what they think and believe — at an individual level:

    – what lights their fire in the workplace (also allowing for different cultural attitudes (thanks for the reminder, Kristen – Trompenaars, Hofstede et al fascinating) — and not just in any particular overseas offices relative to a single culture – after all, the workforce is often culturally diverse in many offices, including at headquarters)

    – how their beliefs and feelings might be different in different business (high-growth and bullish, efficiency drive, merger/acquisition etc)

    – what drivers they believe light the fire

    – and what they would actually like to call this process of lighting their fire!

    A sincere and continuous conversation with employees to inform a deeper measurement. I imagine it will be complex to introduce more open questions, it will take more time to have conversations and analyse results, but I imagine also that the patterns that emerge will be much richer, more tightly segmented and more precise, and, once the models are established, will actually allow less delayed findings and more real-time metrics.

    This rather than presenting employees with the usual ‘engagement’ survey, where, for example, we have provided 10 options for possible drivers they can choose from — which only really helps us tell ourselves (smugly but caught in definition circularity) that it was one or two of the drivers we ourselves suggested that ‘engages’ them. [Also remembering that the measurement process can be a powerful mode of ‘engagement’ itself]

    As for the term ‘engagement’, I guess that even if WE think it is (or never was) appropriate and that it should be consigned to the scrapheap, it won’t be until everyone stops using it. This isn’t likely for some time, I don’t think, as there are still loads of companies where communications managers, business managers and senior leaders are only just discovering the term and getting very excited that their one-dimensional communications don’t have to be one-dimensional.

    We can be difficult and say we aren’t going to use the term ‘engagement’ out of principle, we can collar people when they use it and get into a lengthy explanation about why it isn’t appropriate, but at the end of the day, we can’t beat them so we’ll just have to continue to join them. And when there’s a tipping point and the revolution comes so that ‘engagement’ becomes a taboo word, we can always say “Oh, we were saying this back in the early 2000s…”

    As an aside, I wrote a short piece a couple of years ago which may be relevant here (albeit a bit tangential) — particularly about listening to employees as part of a true ‘engagement’ process (by which I mean ‘Xment’, of course…)



  7. Mike Klein says:

    Hi Geoff…

    As a pig enthusiast, I don’t want to go on like a pork chop either.

    But one point I didn’t make in the piece above underscores this–“employee engagement” is a much less viable concept now than when it was invented because of the outsourcings and recession of recent years, which have undermined employer credibility generally, and fundamentally (and even, unilaterally) changed the nature of employment in many cases.

    Consequently, in my view, organizational engagement needs to focus as much as rebuilding organizational credibility as it does on seeking employee commitment that goes above and beyond. Focusing solely or excessively on “employee engagement” now could well produce the opposite of its intended effect, which not only be problematic for organizations, but could severely undermine the credibility of organizational communication as well.

    All the best,


  8. Asaad says:

    I have a few thoughts on this topic. First, employee engagement was indeed meant to tap into an employees discretionary effort… to benefit the organization. Let’s make no bones about it, the idea of engagement was sold to employees as a way to make them feel better about their jobs, but the only tangible benefit was always going to be in the company’s favor. Employee engagement wasn’t something that you or I as employees got together and said, lets approach management with our idea to be engaged, it was decidedly top-down. However despite how many of us feel about giving more only to get canned later, the point of the exercise is that we gave up our discretionary effort willingly. No one said that you have to be engaged, or that you have to work 60 hours a week to prove your engagement… while we were undeniably sold the idea of employee engagement, we bought it hook line and sinker…

    My second thought is this. How bad is it really to be an engaged employee? We want to be engaged, don’t we? We want to feel challenged and valued right? So from that perspective employee engagement isn’t dead, its living, its what keeps unemployed souls such as myself pushing to find a better job the next time. Where I feel valued… Instead of asking the organizations to engage us, we should ask them to value us. Now the organizations argument is, that is what they do when they pay you… but in point of fact that isn’t your value to the organization, that is your cost to the organization. Whether or not you are engaged is irrelevant to the company with regards to your value. That is why some people get fired, laid off, made redundant and displaced and others don’t. When a company sits down in tough economic times they ask the questions… what is this employees value… and a lot of times, its negligible, so the cost savings is very evident. I have been cut twice in my life, both times from positions that I was engaged in, simply because the employer could not perceive my value, and I’m not mad in both instances I can see their perspective… and that is where it all rubs down. You think you are valuable, and maybe you are, but you problem is you think engagement makes you more valuable, it doesn’t, it often makes you less valuable because you give up your discretionary effort. So think of it like this, for 40 hours a week you get paid, $100 a week. Now you give extra effort that makes you get your work done in 30 hours and you use your 10 discretionary hours to take on more work, but you still make $100 per week. Are you adding to your value or subtracting from it by being engaged?


    • kevinkeohane says:

      Yes indeed; as Dan says, engagement is a state of being. Some days I am more than others, some quarters I am more than others. It’s about what gets people out of bed in the morning, human motivation, and good / bad management.

      I was talking to Marc Wright at simply-communicate about this over a lovely Wolseley breakfast recently; it’s easy to give very different answers to the employee survey on Monday than you did on Tuesday. Different people will have values and personalities that are inherently accepting / resistant to the whole “engagement” thing.

      Like the famous U.S. Supreme Court Justice said about pornography: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

      • Dan Gray says:

        🙂 You really are a mine of these one-liners aren’t you, KK? That’s actually a great response to Kristen’s earlier comment too.

        Q: How can you know it’s working if nothing’s measured?
        A: Try opening the door and taking a look around!

        OK, so I’m being a bit flippant, but isn’t ethnographic research a much more effective approach than endless surveys to try and gauge how well things are working?

        What’s the buzz around the place? How well are people interacting – within teams and across functional silos? Are thing getting done in the way they need to get done?

        Then, if you must measure something, how about using the critical BUSINESS measures – I don’t know, like the bottom line! Or, if your chosen Value Discipline is product leadership, for example, the speed with which you’re able to bring superior products/services to market.

        Too many surveys seem geared towards justifying the existence of the internal comms team, rather than organisational effectiveness. It’s as if there’s an inferiority complex versus the cousins in marketing and PR (whose value no CEO would doubt), no doubt a function of the continued under-representation of HR on most boards of directors.

        It rather smacks of a vicious cycle and, for the sake of our industry and our corporate masters, I just wish we’d grow a pair and get on with doing something really useful.

      • Sean Trainor says:

        I’m an advocate of ‘leading’ and ‘lagging’ measures. Unfortunately the assumption often made is that “Drivers” are the leading measures of the “big E” lagging measure. Both are completely flawed concepts.
        a) we all a have different drivers
        b) the ultimate lagging measure is the key business objective, not engagement itself.

  9. […] the bloggers at Commscrum posted a piece on how it was time to retire the term Employee Engagement: Time to say good night to Employee Engagement. I nearly fell on my knees weeping with gratitude. Cause you know what I am soooooo over the […]

  10. Thanks for a great post and initiating a really interesting discussion – I have responded in full on my blog (see track back above). In short, I still think that the pursuit of employee engagement programs is a fruitless one, as it denies the source of the problem (bad management).

    Crikey: Camels, dead horses, and pigs. “Within our words we do create our world” Animal Farm anyone? ; – p

  11. […] you want to know the weather, look out the window If you’ve been following the CommScrum at all, you’ll know we’ve been giving a bit of a collective kicking to the […]

  12. David Zinger says:


    This was a very engaging read.

    There was passion, opinion, debate, perspective, villains, victims, bad terms, good terms, and even a little bit of discretion, even effort in that discretion.

    I found it a thoroughly engaging conversation and Mike, I believe you are a master of stimulating that.

    I personally have no problem with engagement at all. I loved how engaged everyone was here. I see engagement as connection and when we only connect the term to one concept (employee) that is disconcerting to me and a disservice to employees.

    Employee engagement has become a common term and I have often suggested we change it and will be thrilled if you are successful in moving it in an altered direction. Yet I also believe hundreds of people on the employee engagement network have been striving to make work better for employees, managers, customers, organizations, leaders, etc. I don’t think they merely see it as – sucking discretionary effort out of overtaxed employees. They have provided wonderful examples of engagement. I am thinking of such fine people as Michael Stallard, Judy Bardwick, Mike Klein, Robert Morris, Ben Simonton, Terrence Seamon, Jonena Relth, Karen Schmidt, Abhishek Mittal, and I could go on and on.

    Let’s never forget that managers and leaders are employees too (they sometimes forget this themselves). We certainly don’t need villains, victims, and helplessness in our workplaces and I need to guard myself against the possible “villainization” of the term: employee engagement.

    Mike, you are one of the most engaged people in the field, you even belong, heaven forbid, to the employee engagement network and your voice is so much needed.

    It is tough to see you say “goodnight” but every “goodnight” can be an entry point to a “good morning” so when I wake up and the workplace wakes to a new improved term please start a network with a new term and I would be delighted to join it because I know you are a good leader. Of course you also said good night with a question mark so maybe you haven’t put the term fully to rest yet!

    In the interim, I am not prepared to give up on engagement and I hope not to shrink it down to a new term but to expand the concept so that it is engagement for the benefit of all and that we extend beyond a simple and simplistic focus on just employee engagement. Employee engagement, the concept, has provided the interest and impetus to have organizations get involved in some very meaningful practices and conversations to enhance work.

    Thanks to all the participants (Dan, Kevin, Geoff, Jennifer, Sean, Asaad,Indy, Kristen, etc. in the comments) for making the last 40 minutes such an exquisite and engaging time for me.

    I trust you will engage along with me and let me know about my blind spots, warts, and trusting innocence that we can enhance work in 2010. In closing, I really do see employee engagement not as a problem to to solved but as an experience to be lived fully by the employee (even the CEO who is an employee) for the benefit of all.


  13. Mike Klein says:

    David–and fellow readers and contributors…

    Thanks so much for your thoughtfulness.

    I indeed was trying to provoke with my idea of “killing the term ’employee engagement’ and spreading its ashes over Iceland.”

    Indeed, in suggesting its abolition, space is also created for its rebirth and redefinition as something we’re aligned on, support and can be collectively proud of, no matter how we wish to pursue it.

    Also, I am an emphatic supporter of the broader term “engagement” and how, in its lack of an adjectival modification, it conveys the respect, connectedness and reciprocity we seek for our enterprises, and, indeed, for all of our human interactions.

    Nevertheless, the idea of one-way “employee engagement” as an “inexpensive” driver of “discretionary effort” remains caustic and perhaps even cancerous for us as practitioners.

    While results may have been impressive and defensible prior to “The Crisis”, reliance on and sale of this approach may not only produce the opposite effect with cynical and pressurized work forces, it also can create undue expectations for communicators and organizational professionals, diminishing perceptions of our value and limiting our opportunity to make a difference in more viable ways.

    Whether the term “employee engagement” is overthrown or whether its definition is restored to something that conveys mutuality, respect and effectiveness is immaterial. What is material is that there is much work to be done to openly discredit the idea that “employee engagement” is a one-way bet for employers. Doing so–and delivering realistic, powerful and dare-I-say “engaging” approaches will better serve practitioners and employers alike.

    Best from Brussels,


  14. Adam Hibbert says:

    Kevin: naive. There, you asked for it. From the perspective of our paymasters, this is about increasing productivity. They’re not in it for the love. David’s right, the good folks who exploit that opportunity out of love and principle are not so mercenary, necessarily, but: if you want to be a good matchmaker, you better recognise what each party truly seeks.

    I got into this game on the basis that being engaged as broadly and deeply as possible in the reasoning that frames our lives is a human good, if not *the* human good. Also naive (can we still be friends?).

    So, IC can go some way to facilitating all participant’s *engagement with* reasoning. It can’t facilitate their full *involvement in* reasoning in a capitalist (or, for that matter, Stalinist) organisation, because democracy doesn’t fit every decision context, we have specialisms, and we need a single point around which an organism can organise.

    So IC can’t deliver engagement, in the sense you and others describe. It can help create the conditions for engagement, and help to remove some of the alienating features of organisational life, but it is not a party to the marriage – the engagement happens between boss and worker, and can only build through their mutual regard, trust, and care.

    BTW, something about this measurement discussion (redux) reminds me of the tale of the gent who visited Dover Street for the last fitting of his handmade suit, after three earlier visits at each of which he had been meticulously measured, only to find in the pocket of said suit a note scribbled in the tailor’s hand summarising those 90-odd data points: short and fat. Let’s be honest how organisations use this stuff.

  15. kevinkeohane says:

    Hmmn. I’m not sure what you’re referring to, but I can assure you adding tangible business value and delivering results is at the heart of what I do. I would be out of a job, as would you and most of us (I hope!), otherwise.

    Reading your response, I don’t actually detect any disagreement with much of what is being said here. But they are all good points.

    Of course we can and should still be friends. I love your contribution to the scrum!

  16. Mike Klein says:

    Re Adam and Kevin (and other readers):

    I guess there is still a distinction to be made between adding value by matching what organizations and employees have to offer (particularly of a non-financial nature) to maximise mutual benefit, and promising employers that they can expect continued surplus productivity through no more than the deployment of manipulative communication.

    I’m not pissing on “engagement”, indeed, we need more mutual, active, multilateral and reciprocal engagement. It’s just that there’s been some corruption in the “software” that needs to be corrected, and fast.


  17. “I guess there is still a distinction to be made between adding value by matching what organizations and employees have to offer (particularly of a non-financial nature) to maximise mutual benefit, and promising employers that they can expect continued surplus productivity through no more than the deployment of manipulative communication.”

    The latter is self-correcting as it doesn’t work. Like with any field of consulting, there are legitimate practitioners that bring value and those that just use the buzzwords to profit via hit & run. The legit ones get referrals and more business. The non-legit get exposed.

    IMHO, to increase ‘engagement’/’discretionary effort’ (lets just say effort), there has to be a something in it for the employee for engagement to improve long term. No doubt the interest of the employer isn’t altruistic, but what I find works best is good for the employee.

    “matching what organizations and employees have to offer” is a great way to describe that dynamic.

    • Dan Gray says:

      Agree, Adrian, and it points back to something Asaad said earlier about wanting to feel “valued”, rather than “engaged”.

      There’s an extra dimension to that that’s all-too-often ignored. As JFK might’ve said, “Ask not what employees can do for their organisation, but what the organisation can do for their employees.”

  18. Very interesting article. You make many excellent points, not least of which is the fact that what engages individuals is as individual as the individual!

    I particularly liked: “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.”

    Many orgs have spent quite an investment on codifying their “tone and policies” into the company values and strategic objectives, only to let those sit on a plaque on the wall or a card in employee wallets. These do little good in making the values and objectives real in the everyday work of the individual.

    Implementing a philosophy and practice of strategic recognition that acknowledges an employee when they demonstrate a value or contribute to an objective in their work helps to bring these values/objectives off the wall and make them real in the everyday work. Now the “tone and policies” of the org are properly reflecting what it is you want to see.

    • Adam Hibbert says:

      I hear that, Derek. Peter Block likes to say that strategic change breaks down at the “point of lamination” – when the thinking gets codified into formulae to be distributed on laminated card, etc …

      Question for me is how do we conceive the role we’re to play in this engagement? There is a tendency for comms, because of its roots, to sell itself to the dominant party as a ‘fixer’ he can throw money at to ‘solve’ a problem relationship. No marriage guidance therapist would begin from that footing (sorry, no *professional* counsellor, at least).

      We’re involved in the ‘engagement’ conversation because spontaneous communication has broken down, and it’s our task to facilitate – to help both sides recognise the gap, and to help them learn how to speak up and listen openly. The logical consequence is that, once organisations have adapted to the historical circumstances that caused this gap, this part of the comms task will whither away, again.

      But while we’re in therapist mode, the first thing we have to be clear about, ourselves, is where both parties are at, right now. In the typical case†, one of them knows the other is sulking, and has a fairly instrumental requirement to ‘fix’ that negative emotional state. One of them knows that the other is untrustworthy and hurtful, and that emotional withdrawal is the only protection available. There’s no use in us trying to make short-cuts from that position to ‘selling’ a beautiful vision of the future – there has to be an acknowledgment and commitment from both sides that their own contribution to the relationship could improve.

      † I know, I know.

  19. David Zinger says:


    I appreciate you line from Peter Block about change breaking down at the “point of Lamination.” This reminds me of Gunther von Hagens’ BODY WORLDS and the plastinated bodies. I certainty don’t want to be, be served, or work with those fascinating but lifeless plastinated figures.


  20. […] Time to Say Good Night to “Employee Engagement”? by Mike Klein, Dan Grey, Lindsay Uittenbogaard & Kevin Keohane […]

  21. Geoff Carss says:

    Its not right to say gud night to Employee engagement!

    As Employee Engagement is a great concept and its been a helping hand for successful transformation management.

  22. Dan Gray says:

    @Sean T – re your ‘leading’ vs ‘lagging’ measure comment above (sorry, too many comments in the thread to post it directly underneath), Warren Levy uses the same idea to distinguish between CSR and sustainability in a great post on CSR Wire – http://bit.ly/aX8heg.

    “Sustainability must be an impact yardstick, a lagging measure of the cumulative, aggregate and long-term effect of everything we do. CSR is an activity yardstick, a leading indicator of contributions that, though positive, can co-exist with unsustainable behavior that eventually will overwhelm any good that’s done.”

    Interesting parallel, no?

    It strikes me that much of what is described as ‘engagement’ fits firmly into the latter half of that paragraph, which could easily be re-written as:

    “Engagement is an activity yardstick, a leading indicator of contributions that, though positive, can co-exist with completely contradictory messages implicit in organisational culture and climate that eventually overwhelm any good that’s done.”

  23. HRMexplorer says:

    (E)ngagement = (H)earts +(M)inds its simple its common sense and when you don’t get it your business fails!!

  24. […] the bloggers at Commscrum posted a piece on how it was time to retire the term Employee Engagement: Time to say good night to Employee Engagement. I nearly fell on my knees weeping with gratitude. Cause you know what I am soooooo over the […]

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