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.