Demystifying Employee Engagement – Its Time to Tell it Like it Really Is!

Doug Crawford, Cerus Consulting

The concept of employee engagement has been the cause of much debate and discussion over the years – some of it well intentioned, balanced and informed, some sadly partial and ill informed. A collection of thought pieces The future of engagement  recently published by Engage for Success with CIPD and IES are a welcome addition, helping raise the level of debate.' What is undeniable to most people (there are still a few stubborn naysayers out there) is that employee engagement ‘matters’ in as much as it is core to sustainable performance. The problem is that we just can’t agree on precisely what it is, how it should be measured or how it actually contributes to organizational performance. For some this ‘leap of faith’ poses no problems but for others it is deeply troubling – the absence of robust scientifically verifiable data and coherent evidence based models calls into question the validity of the whole concept.

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, consultants and academics alike have inevitably poured forward to offer their views and solutions and as a consequence the waters have become extremely muddied – we have become embroiled in ‘engagement schizophrenia’ ; on the one hand portraying it as a complex and difficult journey that needs time, money and concerted effort to undertake and on the other hand maintaining that it is something that can be measured using a few simple metrics and managed by a means of a series of ‘initiatives’ - and many shades of grey in between!

This confusion is profoundly unhelpful (except for those who exploit the uncertainty to make a very handsome living!) and has resulted in an increasing number of organizations starting to question whether engagement really is the ‘holy grail’ that it was held up to be. As a consequence there is a significant risk that employee engagement could become consigned to the dustbin of history as just another ‘management fad’.

In my view this would be a profound mistake – a real case of throwing the baby out with the bath water – but it is understandable that some organizations are adopting a more skeptical approach. After all, huge amounts of money are being spent every year on conducting employee engagement surveys, developing ‘employee engagement’ strategies and communication programmes and embarking on associated initiatives but all too often the anticipated impact on organizational performance fails to materialize. Why is this so?

It is my contention that this arises largely because we have lost sight of the basics and have fallen into the trap of believing too much of the rhetoric and mythology that has grown up around the topic. There is therefore an urgent need to ‘demystify’ much of what has been said and written about employee engagement, get back to basics and set the record straight, particularly with regard to the following:

Definition – engagement is fundamentally an emotional response which an individual has to the situation in which they find themselves and an employee chooses to become engaged when their intrinsic motivational needs (ie the things that matter most to them) are met. So employee engagement is fundamentally about fulfillment of intrinsic motivation, nothing more, and psychology and neuroscience already provides us with all the evidence we need for us to understand what drives intrinsic motivation.

Link to performance – engagement does not in and of itself result in performance; it needs to be considered in relation to the performance model of the organization in question and what this means for how engagement needs to be channeled and capabilities harnessed. So engagement is not an add-on – it needs to lie at the heart of organizational culture and practice and in particular needs to be fully integrated into the processes whereby performance is managed in order to achieve alignment with organizational purpose and values.

Measurement – if engagement is about deep rooted psychological processes and intrinsic motivation then that is what we need to be measuring, not the over simplistic and sometimes downright dangerously misleading measures that are all too often adopted. We also need to stop confusing causality with correlation; just because an employee demonstrates loyalty or discretionary effort does not necessarily mean that they are engaged or perform to a high standard!

Intrinsic motivation – how do we stimulate it? It’s down to good old fashioned ‘good management practice’ so let’s not pretend that it is something new but let’s highlight the fact that ‘putting the management basics in place’ is probably the single most important step that any organization can take on their ‘engagement journey’. Its not about complex initiatives or programmes but ensuring that good management practice becomes truly embedded within the organization, that managers behave with integrity, understand that managing and motivating people does not conform to a ‘one size fits all approach’ and that managers fully embrace their role in stimulating engagement (sadly in my experience a piece of the jigsaw that is all too often missing).

Expectation management – engagement is not a magic panacea; it means different things to different people (ie a one size fits all approach does not work), not everyone will be engaged no matter what you do and (as stated earlier) it will not of itself result in superior performance. However it is not complex, need not cost a lot of money and is within easy reach of every organization – most probably have the tools, resources and expertise readily available to them they just need a more concerted focus on management practice, conversations and relationships.

My view is that organizations need to take a step back and re-think what they mean by employee engagement, why it matters to them and what they need to do to successfully embed it. Expending purposeful effort in helping managers better understand their role in stimulating engagement and equipping them with the skills to be more effective people managers, particularly in terms of the conversations they have and the relationships they build, will produce much greater impact than spending vast sums of money on over-simplistic surveys and measurement or over complex initiatives!

View the collection of thought pieces: The future of engagement

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