Employee Engagement: Challenging a ridiculous idea with a human alternative

Millions, perhaps billions of dollars, get made every year in the employee survey business.

Employees gather on stairs

One of the most pervasive influences on internal communication is based on a ridiculous idea.

The ridiculous idea is that there’s something called “employee engagement” that can be measured on a scale of one to 100.

Even with breakthroughs leading to improved technology, empowerment and communication occurring over the last 20 years, the idea that employee engagement is a linear concept that can be refined into a single, almighty score persists.

From time to time, individual companies such as KPMG have openly questioned the value of employee engagement surveys. 

But the pursuit of the singular goal of ever-higher “employee engagement” has retained much of its popularity. 

Commonly held “near-myths” sustain the engagement juggernaut:

  • Employee engagement is about improving employee morale, commitment, satisfaction and productivity.
  • Employee engagement is linear, starting at a point of “zero” or “disengaged,” and moving progressively upward to ”engaged,” with all employees falling somewhere on that scale.
  • Employee engagement is about employees, full stop.
  • There is a causal relationship between increased engagement scores and improved performance, more than just a correlation (even though none has been proven).

In addition, there’s been a moralistic tone to this push – a belief that employee engagement is the state that all companies should pursue for all employees. Companies that reject this view are bad, wrong and unenlightened.

A different view

Even though these are common themes, I chose to look for an alternative perspective. Here’s how Webster’s Dictionary defines “engage”:

  • to pledge oneself 
  • to begin and carry on an enterprise or activity
  • to take part 
  • to give attention to something :  
  • to enter into conflict or battle
  • to come together and interlock (as of machinery parts) : be or become in gear

Building on Webster’s definition, an alternative view of engagement emerges:

  • There is no such thing as “disengagement,” as long as an individual has any involvement or interest with an organization.
  • Engagement is neither a virtue nor a vice, but merely a characterization of the nature and intensity of one’s relationship with an organization.

Enter the human dimension: six engagement personas

Looking at Webster’s definition, I’ve identified six different personas reflecting different motivations and producing distinct types of relationships:

  • Mary E. Ternity (The engagement of the “ring”)—mutual, heartfelt, emotional commitment
  • Matt Grappler (The engagement of the “mat”)—wrestling: active disagreement, but within a productive context
  • Smith N. Wesson (The engagement of the “rifle”)—battle: active opposition
  • Lee Seamless (The engagement of the “gearshift”)—mechanical: productivity without resistance or grief
  • Mercy Nairy (The engagement of the “hawk”)—reward seeking: focused on individual outcomes and recognition
  • Van Gough (The engagement of the “artist”)—perfection seeking, focused on fulfilling and developing personal standards

Mary E. Ternity: The engagement of the ring

Mary E. Ternity is the employee with what many employers and employee engagement survey providers consider “the right kind of engagement.” 

With apologies to JRR Tolkien, I call this “the engagement of the ring” – a willingness to provide a level of exceptional emotional commitment, supernormal productivity and unbounded corporate enthusiasm manifesting itself in generous degrees of “discretionary effort.”

The biggest question facing Mary’s employer is the extent to which it must reciprocate Mary’s commitment. 

Additionally, if the employer really wants all employees to mimic Mary’s commitment, will the price be a culture that stifles dissent, innovation and change? 

If engagement is about “extraordinary mutual commitment” and there are deep senses of obligation on both sides, can such an organization withstand competition from companies whose approaches are honest but far more flexible?

I do see companies for whom Mary would be their primary employee persona—companies in which personal involvement in the product or the process of delivering it makes it a unique, premium offering. 

Effectively achieving “engagement of the ring” needs to balance exceptional commitment sought from its managers and staff, with sustained and sustainable organizational commitment from leadership that withstands competitive and economic challenges.

Matt Grappler: The engagement of the mat

Matt Grappler is an engaged employee – but engaged in a very different way from Mary. 

Matt is often agitating, fighting or struggling with the organization, its culture and processes. 

In this way, he is a “wrestler,” fighting in a controlled way on the “mat.” In those fights and arguments, Matt is standing up for what he sees as the organization’s interests, seeking innovation and improvements. 

At a broader level, disagreements within organizations can bring friction, discord and disruption. 

Many such disagreements yield or prompt the realizations and realignments that make organizations more responsive to customers, more efficient to operate and more honest places in which to work. 

The willingness to initiate those fights and arguments is not a form of “disengagement”, but rather a keen form of engagement that can be valuable to an ambitious and competitive organization. But you wouldn’t know that from Matt’s engagement score.

Lee Seamless: The engagement of the gearshift

For many people, work is about going to the plant or the office, doing everything that comes across the desk, and going home and getting on with the rest of their lives – taking care of the kids, or the boat for that matter.  

Lee Seamless is that kind of employee. 

The engagement survey might consider Lee “disengaged.” 

But Lee’s way of working is actually a mechanical type of engagement—coming into the process, doing her bit and leaving work matters at the door at the end of the day.

This kind of engagement and the organizations that foster it are heavily criticized by those who see “engagement” as a moral imperative. 

But for Lee, it works. 

And for Lee’s employer and others like it, the “engagement of the gearshift” endures because there are many employees who do not want jobs or positions that interfere with their non-work lives: They want to go to work, do their jobs, go home and devote their mental energy to their children, churches, activities or communities.

This is not to say that the “engagement of the gearshift” must be purely one way and transactional. Effective engagement within such organizations can be built out of an honest understanding of organizational, employee and manager ambitions, and by identifying opportunities where participation can strengthen the organization’s commercial offerings or production processes.

Mercy Nairy and Van Gough (The engagement of the hawk/the engagement of the artist)

Mercy Nairy and Van Gough are two different personas with one common characteristic: a highly self-oriented sense of what they want to get out of their respective organizations. 

Mercy practices the “engagement of the hawk” – a focus on personal triumph and financial reward. 

Van is driven by the “engagement of the artist” – a desire to pursue the perfection of his chosen craft.

In a world where the contractor and embedded consultant play an increasingly important internal role in organizations, engagement with people belonging to either of these two species tends to be highly individualized, thus challenging an overall engagement framework that tends to exalt long-term mutual harmony. 

Smith N. Wesson:The engagement of the rifle

Current models of “engagement” tend to consider active hostility, opposition or sabotage characteristic of “disengaged” employees (or for that matter, “disengaged” managers or corporate alumni).

But, while disgruntled, people like Smith N. Wesson are actually profoundly engaged. 

They care about the organization, and they are determined to pay it back for any real or imagined offenses. This is the engagement of the rifle – an active but destructive form of engagement.

The “engagement” of Smith and those like him can undermine the enthusiasm of fellow staff members. 

They can make claims about product and service quality within their social networks. In company towns they can spread rumors that can undermine the stability of the company/community relationship. 

What’s important about looking at the “engagement of the rifle” is not simply that people so engaged are aggressive and hostile. Instead, they demonstrate a level and intensity of engagement that can be channeled and harnessed in a more appropriate direction.

For many organizations, finding a way to identify, address and channel “rifle-engagement” more productively – creating closure and reconciliation – could actually be the kind of engagement effort they need most.

In closing

I propose these “six engagement personas” to challenge the pervasive view that “employee engagement” is a linear idea, while employees, be they good (engaged), bad (apathetic or disengaged) and ugly (actively disengaged) people, are actually quite a non-linear bunch.

People engage in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons. Organizations engage in varied ways as well. 

Recognizing, respecting and, above all, optimizing this diversity—and looking for the right combination of folks like Matt, Lee, Mercy and Van to be Mary’s teammates – is a way that offers a more interesting and potentially more dynamic future than seeking a perpetual “engagement of the ring.”

Mike Klein

Mike Klein is Principal of Changing The Terms, a consultancy focused on internal, change and social communication. Mike has worked with organizations in the US and Europe for more than 20 years on their pressing strategic communication challenges, and is a prolific writer and commentator on communication strategy topics.

Mike is also the Founder of #WeLeadComms, an ongoing campaign to recognize communication professionals for the courage, leadership and initiative they demonstrate daily around the world. He holds an MBA from London Business School, is a certified Strategic Communication Management Professional (SCMP), and is a former US political consultant.

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