Employee Engagement Kool Aid

Kool Aid

I’ve just finished reading ‘Engaging the Right Message?’, a blog post by HRTinker which reflects on an Engage for Success regional event he attended in Leeds yesterday. I think it’s good that Engage for Success is out on the road on a much bigger scale than it has been before now. In earlier days everything seemed very London centric, so kudos for getting out and about, it matters.

I want to pick up something HRTinker said in his post, namely:

‘The worry for me is that there was no cynicism in the room, no one standing outside of the agenda asking is this really being pitched in the right way?’

It’s interesting that the Engage for Success group identifies the importance of winning people over, of converting the cynics, and yet it somehow manages to gently and quietly, and I think unintentionally, quell criticism from within.

From my experience based on attending a lot of Engage for Success activity over the years, I concur with HRTinker’s worry. In fact I’ve blogged critically about Engage for Success several times, to the point where people in the group began to address me as ‘our critical friend’. I think they appreciated the challenge, however since launch, the lack of questioning and constructive criticism has risen further to the point where I don’t feel like I can currently contribute critically like I used to. It feels to me like Engage for Success is heading for its own Drinking The Kool Aid Moment, and I think that is a dangerously detached place to be.

Right now – I feel less engaged with Engage for Success than at any time previously, although on reading HRTinker’s post, maybe I’m not as alone as I felt?

As I finish writing this piece I spy a tweet from psycho_boss asking, ‘So how do we engage CEOs with Engage for Success?’ I may be wrong, I often am, and I think in part, people are drawn to others when they get a sense of being able to have a debate, a sense of open respectful disagreement. So maybe it would help if the group demonstrated that behaviour through accepting and issuing challenge a little more comfortably? What do you think?

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Author: Doug Shaw

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

32 thoughts on “Employee Engagement Kool Aid”

  1. I have come to the Engage for Success community, if that is what it is, quite late, as I only heard about the initiative when I saw David MacLeod speak at a The WOW! Awards event in London last July. My immediate thought was ‘ I have to help spread the word about this, because I know it works’. Since then, I have attended three events, and I have never heard any critical voices.
    I have also seen people at these events from very large companies who I know have huge employee engagement issues, and there don’t appear to be any big changes happening within these businesses – at least, not anything that has a positive impact on the customer, which is, for me, what employee engagement is about, improving customer service, which those of us who are ‘believers’ know has a massive impact on the bottom line, when done properly.
    I am attending another event at Ashridge Business School on 1 March, and will publish some comments on that.

    1. Thanks Graham – quite a lot to digest in here, I think I’m detecting something like, heads nodding, words agreed to – where’s the action? Where’s the challenge? Not sure – will think on and for now I want to acknowledge your contribution. I can’t make that 1st March session and I would be keen to hear from you afterwards.

  2. I think that your every day worker will not know to whom this is referring. I don’t know really; I read the report, I follow your blog. That’s all.

    Unless CEOs create their own movement I’m not sure anything will shift. Paradigms and all.

    I wonder whether it’s (engage for success) simply preaching to the converted..

    1. Thank you. Now if only you’d posted this comment before I’d written the post you could have saved me a lot of time 🙂 Love where you are coming from on this, cheers.

  3. I think there is a tendency to make this complicated but it’s quite straightforward; make some clear links between a businesses performance and the engagement of employees, find the influencers/connectors in the business, give them tools, techniques and empowerment, throw in at least one influential leader who will sponsor this, kick some arse, provide some evidence, keep it real and it will happen.
    The research has to be about each individual organisation, not generic research. It’s only people like me who are interested in that.

  4. I think at the moment it is E4S preaching to the converted, pretty much. I don’t think you will ever get a bunch of CEO’s working together on this, unless they are from businesses that aren’t competing with each other in any way. There was a CEO launch event in London toward the end of last year, and a letter to The Times in support of the ‘movement’, but I wonder what actions have followed on from that. Maybe I will ask that question on March 1!

  5. Doug,

    Hope you are well.
    I’ve read many of your comments on the EfS group / community with interest. Only today have I looked at their website. There appears to be useful content ready to use. And yet something’s not happening.
    Graham mentions “people at these events from very large companies who I know have huge employee engagement issues”. My thoughts gravitate towards whether the most appropriate people are present.
    The conversations most likely, in my opinion, to change engagement within organisations are those informal and, to some degree, formal ones near the coalface. I’d suggest that getting those who do it to attend rather than those who set policy could increase the critical particpation.

    1. Splendidly well thanks Mark – and you? Following on from your point and Graham’s I’ve gone back to one of the first blog posts I wrote about all this stuff and found this:

      ‘Other observations which struck me about this invited group were: I saw no representation from the black and minority ethnic communities among the guests (there were a few empty seats so maybe some were invited and couldn’t make it) and I think I was one of the younger folk in attendance. I’m 46.

      One further point that interests me is that I “advertised” the fact that I was going to this meeting on several forums. I encouraged folk to contact me with ideas, opportunities, concerns etc. that they might want to get on the table. The response barely registered a murmur.’

      I raised the issue of diversity at the time and sadly got a somewhat uninspiring reply. Looking at what you and Graham have written – I can’t help but fell that in some ways, not only is something not happening, but perhaps pretty much nothing is really happening. Beyond the current immediate Engage for Success group that is. To some extent your closing point reminds of what some of what Stop Doing Dumb Things events are all about. Hmmm…?

  6. Hi Doug, some good challenges here.

    I would say that, based upon my involvement in the movement, it (we) are trying to encourage input and involvement including criticism.

    A couple of things we’ve started recently are a Google Plus group:

    And a Podcast / Radio Show – one of which has been a call-in show designed to get inputs whether these are pro or con:

    I’ve also been impressed how receptively other people in the movement have been when I’ve criticised it too.
    Eg http://strategic-hcm.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/e4s-nailed-now-what.html

    There’s always more you can do, but I do believe there is a good effort going on.

    1. Thanks Jon. I agree about input and involvement and my experiences of being in the group thus far is that we aren’t encouraging criticism. The whole things feels too….deferential? I’m not sure I’m bang on with that word, maybe lacking challenge is a better description. Of course it’s only my view, and I’m frequently wrong.

      I’m not sure the group should be trying to do more, at least not at the expense of making an impact. Less is often more in that regard.

  7. Hi Doug
    You and I talked about this, along with a bunch of other people at the mindstretch(R) I ran last year. I said at the time, that certainly at the beginning of the E4S movement, any critical comment about the quality of the evidence, the robustness of the research and the concept was pointedly ignored. I’ve withdrawn since, not even now bothering to comment from the sidelines. And maybe, as the E4S bandwagon rolls on, I’ve become too cynical to engage, and see it merely as people choosing to further their own careers, rather than develop shared approaches to joyous working practices in organisations for the benefit of the people. The focus is on profit, which comes from engaged people (supposedly) rather than starting with how can work be made BETTER for people. I’m not naieve; I understand organisations need to make a profit. But the engagement agenda appears to have shifted to the cause of money when originally it was around well being.

    I do believe that people want better workplaces, and that having them makes employees not only more satisfied, but more productive. This has been long establised through a huge range of academic research – not much of which is quoted in E4S’s “The Evidence”. And this is what makes me so grumpy about E4S – it’s NOT robust, it’s NOT evidenced. I too know of organisations involved in the movement whose staff are bullied, demotivated and where sickness absence levels are soaring.

    And I suppose that in withdrawing, I’m not helping the situation. But then again, who wants to be the killjoy and treated as such? And I admire your persistence, Doug – I think “our critical friend” is patronising, myself.

    All the best.

  8. I don’t think that getting CEOs on board is all about proving bottom line numbers – the link between engagement and productivity. By now that is really ‘old news’ – they understand the evidence is there but they need to see it working in their own businesses – local case studies, if you like. But what they actually see (in many cases) is expensive engagement surveys conducted as tick-box exercises with very little measurable change flowing from them. Lots of management information but very little change.

    That’s another story, but I actually believe it’s not just about winning their minds, we need their hearts as well. Momentum will build if we can get to a point where many Chief Execs believe that engagement is the right thing to do for its own sake – because wellbeing and feeling happy matter (to them, to everyone), as well as because the outcome will be more sustainable performance, higher productivity and profitability. 

    I think broadening our thinking to include well-being would also help here (to be fair this is part of e4s but it’s not in the headline). Its fairly obvious that all CEOs are very engaged – so they take it for granted in their own lives – but not all of them have high levels of well-being. We all know about the high profile examples where a pressurised role at the top has tipped over and had negative outcomes. So we have to make it personal, we need to hear those stories…but in reality we seldom do and the stigma surrounding mental health issues probably applies in this group of (usually) alpha males more than any other.

    So maybe if we did broaden out a bit from engagement to include personal well-being (which research shows underpins engagement anyway) over time we’d probably see more CEOs speaking about and getting involved with this movement; and maybe then it might start, well, moving. 

    From a practical perspective, I personally find it hard to believe that with all the influential players, including David Macleod himself,  involved in e4s that it’s not possible to get a group of CEOs together who would commit to being part of the roadshow – not just as a one-off but maybe by doing 3or 4 things over a year.

    Finally, I completely agree with the points made in other comments here about the importance of involving and ‘engaging’ front-line staff. Movements can be called such when they aim to get the majority on board and reach a tipping point…not when you have managed to get practitioners (who get it anyway) to talk about a subject a bit more than normal. That helps, but it’s not a movement. 

  9. I am front line in HR, I am relatively young (well, 26), I am probably a bit naive but to me a group like this should be primarily about people coming together saying ‘this is what I have done, this is why I think it worked’. That includes a bit of context, component activities, how it was measured etc I was due to attend an E4S event today but it has sadly been cancelled. I was looking forward to sharing some of the approaches I have used with teams and hearing about what others have done, sharing my ideas about building on that and problem areas, getting advice/inspiration from others. When the event is rescheduled, I’ll be interested to see if it lives up to my expectations.

  10. It is interesting to read this and reflect on the comments. I wonder if this initiative is mirroring what happens to so much change in so many organisations; the rhetoric takes over, the self interest of being involved in breaking new ground (there is no new ground), the bureaucracy, the fragmentation. It all combines to override the good intentions. You can see it all mapped out here.

    What a fantastic opportunity to explore where the work is at, and learn from that.

    It’s an experiential art (P Cook, 2013)

  11. As you know, Doug, I’ve been constructively critical of the engagement juggernaut. It’s interesting to read the comments my People Management piece attracted when I dared to pose the question that the so-called “Task Force” may well be becoming an oxymoron: http://blog.peoplemanagement.co.uk/2012/05/employee-engagement-taskforce-an-oxymoron/
    I don’t see how “spamming” a dozen links to the site represents a constructive argument, but that was the offering from the eager beaverwe affectionately refer to as David’s Tigger…..
    Absolutely nothing wrong with sharing “best practices” albeit most of what I’ve seen has been in the public domain for decades. The problem isn’t agreeing definitions, preaching to the converted or creating new forms of measurement but it’s about influencing the holders of the purse strings that they need to change.
    Love the notion of regional forums etc. But there’s no escaping the fact that, despite spanning the worst economic downturn in living memory, it has taken almost half a decade for anything tangible to emerge and all of the indicators are still heading south etc etc.
    It’s hugely difficult for a committee to role model “engagement”, regardless of the leadership. In fact committees have a bad reputation in this country for being cathartic burial grounds for difficult subjects (think Press reviews/race riots etc etc). However, I think I’ve earned the right to believe that I may just know a thing or two about the subject in question. Drawing on that knowledge and based on what I’ve witnessed first hand within organisations, dissenting voices are a very necessary part of the creative process. Evangilism isn’t all that appetising, especially in the UK where the Everyman is justifiably suspicious of the jingoistic zealot. I find the notion of a thousand “gurus” uncomfortable, especially when the experts I respect are both very long in the tooth in terms of experience and usually mavericks rather than “Moonies”.

  12. Hi Doug,

    As Evelyn Hall said: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

    Criticism and challenge is not dismissed in my experience, I think HRTinker may have more influence to change the thing he complains about by raising it at the time and not posting anonymously which makes it harder to continue a quality dialogue. I think people who have a challenge / criticism also have a responsibility (if they really want to see change) to do so in a constructive way. Just as those receiving the feedback have a responsibility to not take it ‘defensively’ and instead take it for what it is – useful feedback possibly highlighting a genuine blindspot.

    I also believe that perception is reality and therefore we still have some work to do given this is how you (and some others commenting above) feel. I have always fed the points into discussions and responded back when I can.

    I’m keeping this post short as already said my piece here: https://plus.google.com/105813534505965735749/posts/cre1bwegfsL

    I will end up writing an essay otherwise!


  13. I believe this exchange is extremely telling………
    The starting point for any signficant change has to be practicing what you preach!

  14. I’ve worked in senior Comms for over a decade and have no idea how people like Ali G above feel they can lay claim to such authority in this area. A quick squint at a LinkedIn profile reveals someone job hopping every year or so with little substance, nothing to justify the patronising swagger I have to say!

  15. Oh dear, now this is descending into something rather unpleasant.
    The reason I am involved with Engage for Success is because I have been an engaged employee, I know how infinitely better it was then being a dis-engaged employee was, and I want to help other people to understand how it works, because most people don’t.

  16. Thanks folks for what are in the main, more interesting and useful comments.

    I agree with Graham – some of the more recent stuff is straying off topic, I choose not to moderate stuff on here because I come from a place of trust. I’ve tried Googling Sean Owen and I’m not able to track him down, but if he is working in ‘senior comms’ for more than a decade, then he should know better than to comment as he has. Play nicely please, or don’t play here at all.

    Cheers – Doug

  17. It is interesting to observe the feathers I seem to have ruffled.

    I in no way intended any remark to be patronizing. I hope that Doug whom I have met and spoken to on many occasions would have recognized the spirit in which I wrote my comment.

    To rephrase; my experiences have taught me that the people involved in the movement are open to critizism and challenge and so I cannot agree at a personal level with this post. I have another perspective to offer. However, I was also acknowledging that just because that is my experience it does not make it true for everyone (Doug included) and so I fully respect his views and think they are as valid as mine and have every right to be aired – the freedom to do so is vital.

    What Sean seems to have taken as arrogance was me stating the point that far from quelling criticism, that in my role on the core team, rather than not mentioning such debate, I actively highlight such views so we can consider if there are things we can do differently in future.

    I also ‘dared’ to question the usefulness of public yet anonymous feedback by the blogger referred to by Doug, again this is my opinion – I thought sharing of opinions is part of what makes for quality conversation on such blogs.

    I welcome rebuttals and challenges to my points of view. Trying to make my opinions seem illegitimate by questioning my background just makes a mockery of what this whole debate is about. I have been in my present organisation for 5 years and was invited to be seconded to engage for success due to my energy and committment for the topic (I don’t see how that can be viewed as job hopping)

    Whilst on the topic of being patronized, it had not gone unnoticed that one of the comments chooses to liken someone (most likely me) to a character out of Winnie the Pooh in an attempt to discredit/belittle. If that is not patronizing and disrespectful I don’t know what is!

    When I have seen posts where I think I can add facts or context I do so. I am representing my thoughts no one else’s. I also always invite any person I am in conversation with to get involved so that they can make a positive and proactive impact on how we approach things.

    To the example Ian highlights – the ‘Oxymoron’ post; this post was specifically judging the performance of the 40+ individuals who make up the task force based on a 4 year time period that simply didn’t exist – at the time of posting the task force had only been in existence for a year and the other communities of the movement still forming and the web and other offerings embryonic.

    It seems I have earned Ian’s contempt merely for challenging the premise of this article. I don’t consider that quelling criticism – there was no mystical disappearing of said article as might happen in some other countries where there really is an issue with freedom of speech. I commented on the article to share facts that readers might be interested to help them reach their own conclusions.

    As for spamming – we have had so many positive comments about what we have shared, people re-sharing and thanking us for the useful information. However I am not saying we are perfect, our approach is ever evolving and is naturally going to develop as the offering from the movement develops also. We are always looking for more support and expertise in this area so to anyone who feels we can be doing things differently or better, I invite you to join in and share your expertise for the benefit of all of us.

    I think it is a fundamental requirement of anyone who works in the field of employee engagement or communications to have genuine respect for all people, regardless of gender, creed, status etc.

    Some comments surrounding this post are unfortunately the most vivid demonstration of the type of behaviors, in response to someone voicing their opinion, that the movement are committed to eradicating.

    If my active commenting on blogs articles and forums is seen as ‘quelling criticism’ I can only apologies and reiterate that we are on this journey (together one hopes) and like others such as Graham, am doing this because I really believe in it and am doing the best that I can, which seems to be appreciated by the vast majority.

    Some here will be happy to know my secondment ended at the end of last year and although I remain involved, my level of involvement is hugely reduced. However we are lucky to have Dean Royals, Jo Dodds, Jon Ingham, Rachel Miller and others stepping up their involvement and contributions to continue supporting the movement in this respect as well as other contributors like Doug who have been supportive along the way. There is always room for more people too, so if anyone here is up for it do let us know! 🙂

    On that note I am going to focus my attention of a conversation that is far more energising and one that I think adds more value as it is focused on HOW best to continue to raise the profile of the topic and to shine a light on good practice.

  18. Well said, Ali. I, for one, appreciate the work you have done to push things forward. Someone mentioned on another blog, or it might have been on one of the LinkedIn groups, that the U.K. is leading the world on employee engagement issues – I think the person who made that comment was from Canada.
    As my old boss said to me when I left where I had been working for 24 years in 2003, ‘Thank you for everything you have done – I want you to remember for the rest of your life that you have been part of something very special here’.
    I hope someone said words to that effect to you when your secondment ended! 🙂

  19. Thank you Graham – your words are much appreciated and encouraging.

    Yes at xmas I had some very warm and heartfelt acknowledgement from those I have worked closely with in the movement as well as my boss at the co who seconded me. Has been really lovely. Because I remain involved it was less of a goodbye and more of a thanks and delighted to still be working together albeit in a changed format.

    Thanks again 🙂

    1. You are welcome Ali – I will never forget the welcome you gave me when I attended my first Connecting HR tweet-up – that sort of behaviour is much more important than a so-called credible C.V. in my opinion 🙂

  20. You rang?

    Ironically I did take a squint at your profile, Ali, as I ws fascinated by the voracity of your opinions….and someone mentioned that you’re based in Hemel, down the road from my old stomping ground Berkhamsted and site of my favourite pub!

    I’ve since taken a look at your prolific social media postings and have to commend you on the fact you’ve clearly responded to last year’s criticism well as the output in this areas has improved hugely. Perhaps there’s a lesson there for us all.

    As for the “tigger” comment. You’ve taken it completely the wrong way. It alludes to a widely known but very simple management development/self awareness tool used as part of The Happness Project, among other things: http://www.happiness-project.com/happiness_project/2010/10/quiz-are-you-a-tigger-or-an-eeyore-plus-a-few-points-to-consider/

    There’s enough room on the speaking platforms for a whole array of pespectives. Any sniff of a witch hunt of “dissenting voices” or “disappearing blgs” whether they’re a Sean; Karen or Jasminder for that matter is frankly ridiculous and hugely counterproductive.

    Nice to see the impact all of the noise about engagement is having on the likes of Graham. But for every Graham there’s someone as credible with jangling nerves and a raging ice-cream headache at every mention of the word. Let’s face it folk – the change challenge lies there not in preaching to the converted.

  21. I am still keen to get to the heart of what this post was intended to be about and which the comments have dishonored.

    Sean (aka Ian?) is trolling and Ian (still) patroniszing and contemptuous of me having an opinion – albeit one that simply stated the importance of both intention and method regarding both giving and receiving feedback. Possibly this is because, in his own words I am not ‘long in the tooth enough’ for him.

    The only point I think Ian and I will agree on is that there are people out there who shudder at the mere thought of engagement and that we need be able to meaningfully connect with those people to make the difference.

    However as the behaviors demonstrated here have meant that topic of “being able to have a debate, a sense of open respectful disagreement” has been completely violated, to avoid any further confusion Doug I suggest I give you a call instead.

  22. Having spent some time on the “Taskforce” may give you the sense that you somehow speak for an industry, Ali. But it doesn’t give you the right to ride rough-shod over the opinions of people who, let’s face it, have a great deal of practical and strategic experience in this area. I haven’t seen much evidence of the “open respectful disagreement” you allude to on any of the EE forums. I have, however, noticed a growing sense of frustration and resulting critique on the CIPD site and others.

    Doug writes well and is adept at getting his point across. With all due respect, what is it about the post that you don’t get? The piece is pretty clear. To me, it reads that there’s more to a “movement” than jingoism, blind fanaticism and attempting to seize control of the radio station with countless page long postings! Perhaps it’s heretical, however, to suggest that the Kool Aid isn’t to everyone’s taste, in which case he should doubtless be forced to retract his views or shut the blog down!!!!!

    Doug is one of the few people to have suggested that it may be healthier to have a meaningful exchange of views than to blindly follow the crowd. He has had the courage to be honest about his critique while many others have walked away from the many meetings mumbling quietly to themselves afraid to voice dissent for reasons typified by this exchange and, of course, the fact that they are hoping to profit by association. His views are a refreshing change as, like the rest of us, he actually appears to care about the topic. Wasn’t it this sort of criticism that finally initiated the social media platforms etc?

    Perhaps more than most, I’m well aware that there’s certainly much more to employee engagement than passion. blind faith and hope. But credibility is certainly slipping.

    Whether you or I agree on the topic is hardly the point. I’m more than comfortable that you have a different perspective, but as for “trolling”, why would I bother?.

    For what it’s worth, at the risk of being accused of “patronising” you because I don’t agree with you, I humbly suggest that if the “movement” is ever going to gain the traction it needs, the representatives might want to take a look at how they interact with people who don’t happen to share the party line or particular approach.

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