Defining and Measuring Employee Engagement

I was among a cast of hundreds invited to the QEII conference centre yesterday to bear witness to part of the launch of Engage for Success, the UK based movement centred on the phenomenon that has become known as employee engagement. It’s no secret that I’m not totally bought into employee engagement, whatever that might be (and more of that later), and yet I know there are better ways to work and get engaged than many of those currently in play, hence my interest I guess. Vitally for me, yesterday was a great chance to catch up with some friends I’d not seen for a while and say hi to a few new faces also.

We were first addressed by Nita Clarke and David MacLeod who together have co –chaired this work since Peter Mandelson (remember him?) lent his support to the Engaging for Success report published in 2009. Nita and David talked about the build up from this report to the present day. Lots of work has gone into documenting so called evidence of engagement, creating momentum around engagement, and the questions left hanging were, so where is it now, and where’s it heading?

Up next to help answer these questions were Archie Norman and Tanith Dodge, both of whom I’ll come back to in a future post. For those of you keen to get a sense of Archie and Tanith’s talks now – please take a look at the #E4S storify. The reason why I want to come back to more of this later is that there are some fundamentals I am stuck on.

Defining Employee Engagement

Engage for Success, hereafter referred to by its Twitter handle #E4S, asserts that employee engagement is, ‘a workplace approach designed to ensure that employees are committed to their organisation’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organisational success, and are able at the same time to enhance their own sense of well-being’. You can read more about what employee engagement means to #E4S at their website.

Dictionaries define engagement in a number of ways, including:

1. The act of engaging or the state of being engaged.

2. Betrothal.

3. Something that serves to engage; a pledge.

4. A promise or agreement to be at a particular place at a particular time.


a. Employment, especially for a specified time.

b. A specific, often limited, period of employment.

6. A hostile encounter; a battle.

7. The condition of being in gear.

There are things that interest me in these dictionary definitions much more than the rather dry offering put forward by #E4S. These definitions collectively speak to me of commitment, presence (and by that I mean really being there, not just turning up), love, struggle (hey nobody said it was easy right?), and a sense of phase, something we shift in and out of. Truth is – the real simultaneous joy and pain of engagement is its unwillingness to be defined. Personally, I love that shifting, blurry sense of engagement, and I long for a time when we can just be more comfortable with some vagueness around it.

Measuring Employee Engagement

Apparently, 1/3rd of UK employees are engaged at work. Who are these people? Where do they work? Is it the same 1/3rd every day (so help the rest of us eh), and can we turn them on and off? We also have a trust deficit – whereby 70% of UK workers don’t trust their management, yet we somehow trust them to give an accurate answer to this question?

I think that engagement can exist, and where it does so, it is quite fluid. As such I do not believe it is measurable. Here I find myself at odds with #E4S who say that ‘despite there being some debate about the precise meaning of employee engagement there are three things we know about it: it is measurable; it can be correlated with performance; and it varies from poor to great.

There’s a neat video on the #E4S website – and there’s a killer line in it that says, ‘I am not a human resource, I’m a human being’. Amen to that, music to my ears. Organisations are full of people. We are not machines, and beyond our height and weight we can’t be measured, at least not in any meaningful way. Charles Handy has studied management for years and his observations and studies show us that people at all levels in a business think that they are connected with and understand their teams, and simultaneously their bosses do not understand them. We are wonderfully ‘all over the place’ like that, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

I’ll be back soon with more reflections on the day, particularly with regard to some of what Archie Norman had to say. For now though, if you’d like to add anything to the discussion on definition and measurement, or even just throw rocks at me, I’d love to hear from you.

Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

10 thoughts on “Defining and Measuring Employee Engagement”

  1. I’ll be very interested to read what you thought of Archie Norman, Doug!
    I have heard a lot of the stuff he talked about from CEO’s of Top 100 Companies to Work For, but I think he may have done some ground-breaking stuff at Asda.

  2. You’re right Graham, Archie Norman did do some great stuff at Asda. So much so that in my SDL days we were approached by several blue chip clients asking us to replicate his approach to employee engagement.
    Key to Archie’s approach, however, are three things 1. simplicity (employees simply sent Archie a single improvement idea and he promised to act on it) 2. involvement (his office interacted with that employee direct) 3. recognition (they were applauded for their contribution). The focus was on implementation and change. And he was doing this in the last millennium!!!
    What he didn’t do was spend years re-defining engagement…..
    With regard to measurement – the same principles apply.
    It will never be an exact science. Pick an indicator that works for your organisation (there will be many already available), take frequent samples BUT most importantly, ACT on what you discover.
    Perhaps this penny will drop after another five years of this de-facto civil-service-endorsed fillibuster……

  3. I wonder if it’s like many things that start off with great intent and for all the right reasons but become overly bureaucratic and bound in data and justification, and then we put more effort into the latter rather than the former.
    The result, we have lost sight of the original intent?

  4. I remember in my corporate days working for a company where I spent half my time as a learning and development consultant justifying my very existence. The thought of having to justify an employee engagement initiative would fill me with dread! I know what gets measured gets done, but often that means it gets done in the wrong ways and for the wrong reasons.
    As I have written before, I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t want their people to be happy at work. No justification necessary!

  5. Dear Lord. The bean counters have got their filthy sticky nappers on engagement. Sound the death knell.

    Engagement comes from great leadership. Which comes from all sorts of soft stuff like love of the people, a huge amount of humility, intolerance of intolerance and superiority….an openness and an inclusiveness. And a shift from numbers – share price, p/e ratios, ROIs etc

    Put the ruler away

  6. It’s full of good intentions but is overly bureaucratic. See the extract from ‘Punk Rock People Management’ below:

    ENGAGEMENT – Pretty Vacant

    HR gurus such as Gary Hamel at HR conferences seem to mouth the word ‘engagement’ more times per minute than Robert Plant used to sing ‘baby’ in the average Led Zeppelin song. What does this mean? Is engagement some kind of secret code for ‘in company dating’ or a causal relationship between casual workers and casual sex?

    Of course engagement is all about the 4E’s: getting people excited, empathetic, ecstatic and energetic about the company and what it does. There’s nothing wrong with that, but what about achieving it? Some HR professionals think it is enough to post the words engagement on every wall, website and WC in the company, in the vain hope that the repetition will somehow rub off on staff in some Orwellian approach to culture change. Let’s look at an environment where many people feel engaged naturally. The pub!

    Pubs do NOT have mission statements that say:

    “We aim to encourage sociosexual networking and leverage mission critical knowledge, skills and wisdom through the use of addictive depressant substances in a relaxing lifestyle environment that encourages the suppression of societal norms of decency and so on”.

    Equally, genuine ‘employers of choice’ such as Google, Innocent and Unilever do NOT have such depressing mantras displayed around the office. Isn’t there something very odd about that? To get people engaged with your company, try some of these things:

    Set your people free to decide how they go about their work but be clear about the demands / end results – smart leaders worry about the destination but provide some scope over the journey.

    Encourage constructive and destructive deviance in the pursuit of better / quicker ways to do existing things.

    Encourage spontaneous behaviour by leaving some aspects of work unplanned and unstructured.

    Where performance matters, insist on proper prior preparation. Surprisingly, this applies as much to punk rock as it does to people management. Writing a two and a half minute music hit requires a great deal of discipline as well as tapping into your intuition, as Ian Dury, The Sex Pistols and The Ramones would tell you.

    Punk Rock People Management offers us three chords on engagement:

    Cut the crap on engagement and get engaged with what counts and what gets counted.

    Give people discretion on the means of production whilst being precise on the ends of production.

    Create a vacancy if your people are pretty vacant …

  7. I just want to add that I have the feeling that the part on measuring engagement could be a little extended with the ways that are out there to measure employee engagement within your firm our regarding your personal employee engagement.

    For measuring employee engagement, there are several known ways on how to measure. One might just ask their employees within the organization during conversations or job interviews how they think about their engagement. Another way is to hire consulting firms to conduct an engagement survey and yet another way is conduct it by yourself using engagement tools like Jobber.

  8. Hi Doug,

    Good, thought provoking post. No rocks…

    You can measure employee engagement, but you have to be clear on what it is first! There is no definitive answer, I think the best definition is what is right for your organisation.

    I prefer this from the Institute for Employment Studies:

    “A positive attitude held by the employee towards the organisation and its values. An engaged employee is aware of the business context, and works with colleagues to improve performance within the job for the benefit of the organisation. The organisation must work to develop and nurture engagement which requires a two-way relationship between employee and employer.”

    But I also found (by a writer called Shellley Gable):

    “An engaged employee is a high-quality performer who takes personal responsibility to work toward the success of the organization”

    How do you measure engagement? There are common themes across all the employee engagement practitioners/survey companies/consultants that they look at in a person. Is an employee listened to, do they trust the organisation, do they know what their purpose is, etc. These themes create your score so you can see “this team is engaged” (and your own experience, or the department head’s experience will confirm this), and then you can identify where things are not so good to figure out how to improve these (or learn from where things are done well), and so on.


  9. >> “Is it the same 1/3rd every day”

    Probably. If you rerun the same survey next week (I’m assuming these figures are robust and based on enough people), and nothing has changed in the workplace, you would get the same results (+/- a couple of points either way) 19 times out of 20.

    >>We also have a trust deficit – whereby 70% of UK workers don’t trust their management, yet we somehow trust them to give an accurate answer to this question?

    It depends who asks the question 🙂

  10. Superb stuff folks – I’m extremely grateful for all the useful input and conversation you have helped to create. Most engaging, arghhh! 🙂

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