Even more thoughts on employee engagement

A look through my blog will tell you I’m something of an employee engagement cynic. Not a cynic about the notion of trying to improve work, trying to improve the people stuff, but the concept. Its presentation, its bland, blind acceptance.

The idea of employee engagement is not new, but the language was. The concept went from innovative, to bandwagon, to conventional wisdom quicker than you can say discretionary effort. If you work in HR, and you haven’t read Rob Briner’s excellent deconstruction of employee engagement hyperbole and its evidence base (or lack thereof), then you really should. You can find the link here.

Employee engagement was seen as the answer. On its journey to accepted best practice, somehow it got presented as something that it is not. An absolute. A fact. Some sort of guarantee. That if we do these things that the consultants tell us, that the conferences and the speakers tell us, then we will see it in the numbers. We will see our profitability increase. We took case studies to be causation.

Engagement was presented as the HR holy grail. By consultancies with money to make. By government backed organisations*. By us.

And now we know that it isn’t so certain, after all. That even the report that claims to show the evidence, does anything but. More and more practitioners are realising it wasn’t all that new, after all. Because as I have blogged before, in HR this is what we have always done, always known.

The employee engagement scales are now falling from our eager eyes, and we have realised that the Emperor was naked, after all.

There are two questions left for me, on employee engagement.

The first is this. Why did we buy into the concept so completely and unquestioningly?

I think that part of it lies in that problem. You know the one. Our very own HR version of imposter syndrome. The seat at the table malarkey. No longer did we have to justify the people stuff. We had proof. We had evidence. We had numbers. Now we were serious. Maybe I am being harsh on us. Maybe it just summed up those things that we already believed, in a neat phrase. But I feel that we must look hard at ourselves in the mirror, all the same.

My second question is simply this. Now what?

We know what engagement isn’t. There are no neat numbers or percentages. No easy ROI. Off the shelf solutions. People are messy, complicated, challenging. We know that engagement surveys often don’t deliver what we hoped they would. We know that it can’t be a HR led programme. So where do we go from here?

I’ve said this before, too. I believe that for all the amazing new opportunities that new technology and the future of work stuff that we see coming towards us, it is time to go back to basics at the same time. Focus on doing the people stuff well, and training managers to do the same. We don’t need any new theories. Let’s just get the Herzberg back out. It might be pushing 50, but I don’t discriminate on the grounds of age. If you’ve got problems in your hygiene space, start there. Focus on those things that disengage and demotivate. The theory isn’t perfect, I know that. Its been criticised for its failure to take into account the impact of personality types for starters. Well ditto employee engagement. I am still not entirely convinced how much you can actually change engagement at an individual level. How much of someone’s attitude to work is part of their bedrock personality. Maybe that is a blog for another day. But you take away the stuff that pisses people off.

It is a good thing that employee engagement is being subject to scrutiny and criticism. Not because it is worthless or unnecessary, but because we should always apply a critical mind and think carefully about those things that we strive for or choose to champion in our own organisations.

As well as my call for a little back to basics, there is also no need to throw the baby out with the bath water**. Seeking to do those things that make people like coming to work, connect with their organisation, have a better experience, is still core to what we do. I call it doing good people stuff. The CIPD say it is all about better work and better working lives. Call it engagement if that works for you.

But whatever you choose to call it, carry on doing good people stuff, at your place. Just don’t promise that it can deliver something that maybe it cannot.

*Ever wondered if this had anything to do with keeping trade union membership down? Just a thought.
** There are lot of clichés and metaphors in this blog post. Sorry about that.

5 thoughts on “Even more thoughts on employee engagement

  1. I think what people saw before engagement methods and performance management was a real need to engage people. Why, because companies had worked very hard to achieve the opposite.

    Taking a step further back, in the drive to cut costs etc, people began to be treated like as somebody put it in a different article, a bit like a human plug-in. Use when you want. Dispose when you want, TUPE, replace with younger people… Anything to save money and damn the consequence. Even the kick back was an opportunity to cut costs. Cull the oldies, get rid of the rebels. Hmmm. The toolset morphed into sticks without any carrots. The downward spiral continued.

    Funny thing that this absolute contempt for people and feelings in the race to improve the shareholder dividends has driven many a loyal employee to stop caring. Don’t care, do just enough, don’t cover for your team mates, throw a sickie.. Newer people, generation X are smart, see which companies are rotten to the core and are looking to work in caring places. They aren’t attached to anything yet, Maybe don’t have a mortgage yet. Fancy ball rooms, slides and so on are just a outward way of recognizing the problem. It’s like saying, work here, we are nice people.

    Nice, but not really needed if the basics are in order. Just stop being stupid and engagement will bounce back. As you say, do the people stuff.

    I go back to what I said in an earlier reply, we need visionary thinkers like you right at the top to kick start common sense. Exposing the elephant in the room though as you do is an excellent start. When this becomes impossible to defend any more without looking stupid, it will lose support and die.

    Lets hope the next fad pushed consultants and endorsed by the C level bean counters also happens to be a sane one..

  2. I don’t really agree with ‘engagement’ either. The over complication of it means that we do one part of it well and pretty much ignore the rest. For example, it gets measured using rating scales against a raft of questions, this data might be analysed and key areas identified, but then no-one does anything with that information. Leadership then pat themselves on the back for the areas they are doing well at, HR feels justified in measuring something, and that seems to be the be all and end all.

    Where I think it is useful is understanding how people think, feel and act in working for an organisation. I think it is more powerful to know this through leaders having conversations with the people that work for them. But I do think the numbers can be helpful to verify and target key areas for improvement.

    It comes down to how we define ‘engagement’ though. It seem to me that the term is more often associated with the surveys and the engagement process. Whereas, actually, it’s about whether people feel some sort of connection with their work.

  3. Pingback: Engagement : what evidence do we need ? | Investors in People Scotland

  4. Hi Gem – this is less of a comment, more of a thank you. I invested considerable time in the Engage for Success stuff when it first started, and over the years I’ve written countless posts on the subject of employee engagement. Most of the time I’ve tried to debunk all the crap – albeit largely well meaning, around proof, evidence and more. In Engage for Success circles, it became clear that Kool Aid won over clarity and speaking out, so I drifted away as they continued both to batter the cynics with reams of evidence, and to preach to the converted. Truthfully – it exhausted me. I last wrote about it in November 2013 and I feel so much better for leaving it behind – whatever ‘it’ is, since then. And this juggernaut of puffery still needs challenging, so thanks for your work. It’s good to know someone’s got it covered 😉

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Doug. I’ve another post brewing on the subject. Hey, if the consultants can keep on talking about it, I might as well too.

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