Time for a “War” on “Employee Engagement”

This month, I had an article published in IABC’s excellent online magazine, “Communication World,” which identified the subject of misaligned terminology and its impact on the Employee Engagement conversation.

But something written by Leandro Herrero has prompted me to raise the ante.

In one of his Daily Messages he sends to his readers and fans, he said in reference to the “War on Talent” that “If it is time for a war, let it be a war on Employee Engagement.”

Indeed. It is about time.

And let this be both a war of words, and a war on words.

Employee Engagement has dozens of definitions. Many of them directly conflict with each other.

Some spark unreasonable expectations of benefit in the minds of stakeholders, and many create undue burdens on the employees, leaders, managers and consultants who are expected to deliver to them within vague or overly restrictive parameters.

And when anyone attempts to drive Employee Engagement while operating to inconsistent definitions, it’s hard to calculate positive odds for success.

Indeed, there are so many definitions of Employee Engagement that there are multiple categories of them.  These include:

OUTCOMES

Shared meaning that is valuable to the future of the organization:        

                More cohesive community / internal cooperation

                Increased feedback

                More employee attentiveness to customer concerns or other issue

                Improved design of work plans through co-creation

Improved retention

PROCESSES

                A more participative approach to negotiations , processes or innovation

ATTITUDES

                Improved employee morale and satisfaction

                Raised levels of commitment to company values and objectives or to a specific project

                Increased motivation and feeling of belonging

OUTPUTS

                Increased attendance and participation levels at events / meetings / online platforms

                Co-created plans

                Feedback

MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES

                Involving employees in strategic decision-making

MANAGEMENT BEHAVIOURS

                Listening to employees and taking their suggestions on board

                Recognition

                Conducting employee surveys

MEASUREMENT

                Any measurement measuring any one of more of the above items

The Most Egregious Practice

The most egregious practice in the of the Employee Engagement  definition mess is the extent to which many of their authors treat their own definition as “the answer,” and then cite survey research about Employee Engagement which aligns with completely different definitions and methodologies.

This approach makes, inadvertently, naively or cynically, a claim that adopting the author’s approach will address the researcher’s question, when there may be no direct connection between the two. At best, that muddies the waters.  At worst, that’s bait and switch.

Winning the war on Employee Engagement

If there is going to be a war on Employee Engagement the first step to victory would be to establish some linguistic integrity in this space.

When an author talks about “increasing discretionary effort” and calls it Employee Engagement, practitioners need to say, “NO, you are talking about increasing discretionary effort.”

When a respected consultant says the answer is to selectively involve employees in governance and strategic decisions and calls it Employee Engagement, we need to say “NO, you are talking about selectively involving employees in governance and strategic decision making.”

 When a manager talks about organising a town hall meeting and calls it an Employee Engagement, one needs to say politely “No, this is better described as a town hall meeting because nearly everything these days is called Employee Engagement.

The Fruits of Victory

This is not to say these activities are without benefit, or that they won’t improve Employee Engagement by the standard of one or more definitions.

But one thing that could really improve employee engagement is a more robust vocabulary that would allow us to compare different approaches and their impact on improving specific attitudes, behaviours and bottom-line financials.

Doing so would give organisations more powerful choices in how to assess their needs, select appropriate, efficient and outcome-specific approaches, and execute them effectively.

It is much easier to compare the impact of democratic governance with free employee lunches with amped-up employer branding activities than it is to compare Employee Engagement with Employee Engagement with Employee Engagement.

It is time for a war on Employee Engagement.  And that war, ultimately, will be won by changing the terms.

6 thoughts on “Time for a “War” on “Employee Engagement”

  1. No, no, no, Milke…..what you need is a state appointed “Task Force” to spend the best part of a decade sucking all the focus and funding to the centre.
    They can then create an “army” of “gurus” some of whom may even have had proper jobs at some stage to spend years re-badge design campaigns, events, training even corporate gifts as “engagement mechanism”!

    Then flood the airwaves with aggressive “engagement” posts to such an extent that the Board members of blue chips feel passionately compelled, not only to listen but to join the movement and employ one or two locum communicators on zero hours contracts to work the miracle!

    That’s what you do Mike!

    Anyone seen the latest engagement statistics for……anywhere?
    How’s it all working out?
    Didn’t the various government-led initiatives into racial tension, diversity and other epidemics adopt similar tactics to transform the world we live in, starting by re-defining the terminology?
    Hold on……….

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    • Ian:

      As Bill Clinton once said, “Aaah feel your pain.”

      But I also ask you to consider parking your dismissive attitude towards my call for greater specificity in addressing the range of issues, approaches, diseases and cures which all go by the name “employee engagement.”

      Changing the terminology of “employee engagement” will yield two major benefits: it will allow for more clarity in describing, selecting and comparing issues and solutions, and it will create more space for specific, targeted solutions to be considered more fairly and appropriately.

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  2. Hey! I know you get it, right?

    I know I should “park my dismissive attitude”, which, believe me, I’ve tried to do.
    Yet since the downturn I’ve seen virtually no-one cut to the core of the issues and have witnessed a great deal of re-arranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic in return for OBEs and to what end?

    I have no problem with your core thesis which effectively draws a line under the cliches and re-configures the conversations around decent “horse sense” in the context of business performance/outputs and hard goals and I respect the fact that this is motivated by frontline experience at the “coalface”, which does you great credit.

    But I have to say that this whole space is in need of some blunt, pragmatic and focused speaking as the civil-service-led “taskforce” approach has infected the discourse like a cliche-ridden disease to the point that the enlightened become cliche ridden by association or marginalised for pointing at the elephant in the room.

    If you’re calling for a war, it needs to be much more than be a war on words.

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    • Every war needs it’s D-Day. The ambiguity of the “employee engagement” vocabulary – and the cover it gives for sleight of hand around methodologies and intentions – in my view represents the greatest vulnerability of the whole construct. Going after the language may not be sufficient, but it is thoroughly necessary.

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