• Opinion: ‘Engagement’ initiatives are giving HR a bad name

  • 21 Jul 2017
  • Comments 2 comments

Focusing on engagement as an end goal rather than an enabler is a waste of everyone’s time and efforts, writes Ian P Buckingham

It seems like every day we are bombarded with fresh articles on employee engagement – most of them woefully misguided and terribly confusing.

Employee engagement, put simply, is a state of mind in which employees deliver to their full potential because of an emotional and rational connection with the organisation they work for. It is no more complicated than that. It does not require dozens of definitions. It certainly is not, as many commentators imply, a goal in and of itself. Employee engagement is a means to an end, and that end is the achievement of the objectives of the organisation.

Far too many people who should know better suggest that employee engagement can be achieved by a single initiative or that it requires complex behavioural science. No wonder the statistics have flat-lined over the last decade while CEOs leave the room in search of the headache pills upon mention of the term.

Of course organisations can influence engagement levels, and of course they should – given that engagement is an important enabler or driver of organisational performance. But it requires a systems approach to fix the leaky organisation bucket. Concentrate all efforts in one area only, promise what you can't deliver, and you're likely to do more harm as the goodwill rapidly leaks out elsewhere.

I've worked with dozens of companies to bring about sustainable, positive change. I've seen examples of great initiatives that have created energy and focus. But this always fades away unless the people processes that drive the organisation development system are improved systematically. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Culture management

  • Leadership development

  • Internal communication

  • Recruitment

  • Retention

  • Succession management

  • Performance management

  • Training and development

The best organisations recognise that brand management involves collaborative partnerships between internal and external-facing departments, and that they form alliances between HR, marketing and communications.

So, do everyone a favour: unless you recognise that employee engagement is an enabler, not an outcome, and you're prepared to address at least all of the above holes in your otherwise leaky OD bucket, then please drop the word ‘engagement’. You're wasting your time, doing yourself and your organisation an injustice, and giving the people disciplines a very bad name.

Ian P Buckingham is a business transformation executive and coach, and is the author of Brand Engagement and Brand Champions

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  • I agree Ian,

    and would add that enabling two-way communications as well as consultation sits on top of all of these


    If we try to impose things on our people - it will not work. If we involve them in deciding how we do things- oh, and what, when, why and where - then we take the people with us and out of that pops "engagement"! We agreed just that at our last CEO/Chairman and HR and HRD Directors review - our activities should result in improved "engagement" - we do not need to label them or brand them as engagement initiatives!

  • Totally agree with you Ian.

    I am often asked to explain how you do employee engagement and my response is always the same - you can’t do engagement.

    For me engagement is an output, it is the result of the interventions we have deployed, the conversations we have had, the opportunities we have created.