Four years ago, I was moved enough by the unclarity around definitions of employee engagement that I felt compelled enough to offer my own: â€œThe Four Forms of Engagement,â€ which David Zinger, one of the fieldâ€™s true â€œgurus,â€ was kind enough to publish on his website.
Earlier this year, I started looking at engagement as an area for more emphasis on my partâ€”and found that the discussion had not seemed to move much.
Some themes remain popular, if not uniformly common:
- Employee Engagement is about improving employee morale, commitment, satisfaction and employee productivity
- Employee Engagement is linear, starting at a point of â€œzeroâ€ or â€œdisengagedâ€, and moving progressively upward to â€˜â€™engagedâ€, with all employees falling somewhere on that scale
- Employee Engagement is about employees, period.
- 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
But even though these are common themes, and that many of the new definitions offered by gurus in the field reflect those themes, I chose to look elsewhere for an alternative perspective: Americaâ€™s Websterâ€™s dictionary. Websterâ€™s defines engagement:
- to pledge oneself : PROMISE : GUARANTEE
- to begin and carry on an enterprise or activity b : to take part : PARTICIPATE c : to give attention to something : DEAL
- to enter into conflict or battle
- to come together and interlock (as of machinery parts) : be or become in gear
Building from Websterâ€™s definition, an alternative view of engagement falls out:
- There is no such thing as â€œdisengagementâ€ as long as an individual has any involvement with an organization.
- Engagement is neither a virtue nor a viceâ€”it is merely a characterization of the nature and intensity of oneâ€™s relationship with an organization
Looking at Websterâ€™s definition, I originally came up with four forms of â€œengagementâ€
- The engagement of the â€œrifleâ€â€”battle: active opposition
- The engagement of the â€œmatâ€â€”wrestling: active disagreement, but within a productive context
- The engagement of the â€œgearshiftâ€-mechanical: productivity without resistance or grief
- The engagement of the â€œringâ€-mutual, heartfelt, emotional commitment
In looking back, I saw room for two additional forms, reflecting the growing number of contractors and employees with more of an entrepreneurial bent:
- The engagement of the â€œhawkâ€: reward seeking: mercenary and focused on individual outcomes
- The engagement of the â€œartistâ€: perfection seeking, focused on fulfilling and developing personal standards
The Engagement of the Rifle
Current models of â€œEngagementâ€ may consider active hostility, opposition or sabotage indicative of â€œdisengagedâ€ employees (or for that matter, â€œdisengagedâ€ managers or corporate alumni). But these people are highly engaged. They care about the organization, and they are determined to pay it back for any real or imagined slights.
The implications this â€œengagement of the rifleâ€ can be profoundâ€”it can undermine the enthusiasm of fellow staff members. These employees can make claims about product and service quality within their social networksâ€”and, in company towns; they can spread rumors that can undermine the stability of the company-community relationship. Even employees who may seem â€œapatheticâ€ may go home and moan to their partners, who then do the rumor-spreading for them.
Whatâ€™s important about looking at the â€œengagement of the rifleâ€ 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 organizationsâ€”finding a way to identify, address, and channel â€œrifle-engagementâ€ more productively may be the first kind of engagement effort they need.
The Engagement of the Mat
Some may see a wrestling match as a kind of battle akin to that fought with rifles. But there are two major differencesâ€”wrestling is physically intense but not lethal, and wrestling is a form of physical engagement that takes place within the context of established boundaries and rules.
Disagreements within organizations can bring friction, discord and disruption. But many of those disagreements yield or prompt the innovations, realizations and realignments that make organizations more responsive to customers, more efficient to operate, and more honest places in which to work.
Many organizations want their people to be engaged on the mat. They are seeking new opportunities, to achieve ambitious targets with fewer resources, and desperately require internal challenge, and often bring in external support for framing those challenges.
Does anyone pay McKinsey to come into an organization and sing the â€œHappyâ€ song? For some organizations, the engagement approach they may first need involves creating, licensing and incentivizing staff to choose to grapple with the organizationâ€™s challenges rather than accepting them or stock responses as given.
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 in a way that meets with their supervisorâ€™s consent, and going home and getting on with the rest of their lives.
Some may complain that this is a â€œdisengagedâ€ way to work, but examined closely, itâ€™s a mechanical form of engagementâ€”the person comes into the process, does his/bit, and exits the process at the end of the day.
This kind of engagement and the organizations that foster it are heavily criticized by those who see â€œEngagementâ€ as a kind of moral imperative that must be brought by force to all organizations.
But the â€œengagement of the gearshiftâ€ persists for a number of reasons which are hardly immoral on their face. Some employees do not want jobs or positions that interfere with their non-work livesâ€”they want to go to work, do their jobs, and go home, and have the mind space to worry about their children, churches, crafts or communities.
This is not to say that the â€œengagement of the gearshiftâ€ 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 organizationâ€™s commercial offerings or production processes.
The Engagement of the Hawk/the Engagement of the Artist
A related concept to the transactional engagement of the gearshift is one where the employee is focused on individually-oriented rewards rather than a long term relationship with the organization. The Hawk is something of a mercenary, seeking wins and one-off paychecks to take in from a confirmed kill, er, a confirmed success; the Artist is something of a prima donna, one who works to fulfill oneâ€™s own sense of perfection, and perhaps, to draw on the host organization for due recognition of the quality his or her work or leadership.
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 (see the Engagement IP the Ring below) above all other virtues, even if it is incapable of delivering it sustainably as it is.
The Engagement of the Ring
With apologies to JRR Tolkien, we now come to â€œthe Engagement of The Ringâ€â€”the level of exceptional emotional commitment, supernormal productivity, and unbounded corporate enthusiasm many who speak of â€œEmployee Engagementâ€ actively seek.
In seeking the â€œengagement ringsâ€ of their staffs, however, are organizations willing to wear those rings forever? Indeed, are organizations willing to offer anything at all?
If the ultimate form of â€œEngagementâ€ is a state of mutual happiness and harmony in an organization, will it create cultures that stifle dissent, innovation and change? If engagement is about â€œextraordinary mutual commitmentâ€ 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?
And what happens when those organizations decide to seek more flexibility and fewer obligations? Will the ensuing sense of betrayal result in the â€œengagement of the rifleâ€?
I do see companies for whom â€œthe engagement of the ringâ€ makes senseâ€”companies where personal involvement in the product or the process of delivering it makes it a unique, premium offering. Effectively achieving â€œengagement of the ringâ€ needs to balance the the exceptional commitment sought from its managers and staff with sustained and sustainable commitment from the organization that withstands competitive and economic challenges.
I donâ€™t propose the â€œSix Forms of Engagementâ€ as an authoritative definition of employee engagement, or even as a definitive typology. I am sure other types and subtypes can be identified, and indeed, would like to hear about them.
But I do propose it to challenge the pervasive view that â€œemployee engagementâ€ is some kind of linear idea consisting of Good (engaged), Bad (apathetic or disengaged) and Ugly (actively disengaged) people, and that the right way to address this is to somehow make people more Good, and/or reflexively get rid of those who are Bad or Ugly.
People engage in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons. Organizations engage in varied ways as well. Recognizing, and respecting this diversityâ€”makes a lot more sense than acting as if the only valid form of engagement is one involving a â€œringâ€.