Employee Engagement – There has to be a better way

Employee Engagement – a mighty buzz phrase in the HR lexicon. But hold on a minute…

I haven’t heard of it

I saw some really interesting research data at the CIPD conference earlier this month, published by Surveylab. Their 2013 workplace survey involved over 1,000 people across the world of work, and four out of five had not heard of the term, employee engagement.

I can’t describe it

Are you surprised? I was a little, though when you consider that even Nita Clarke, who with David MacLeod co founded Engage for Success, struggled to explain what employee engagement is to the Queen when accepting her OBE for ‘services to employee engagement and business’ recently, maybe I need to reset my expectations.

Nita Clarke Employee Engagement quoteI don’t believe it

I was taking part in the online #nextchat which is run each week by SHRM over in the USA. This week questions were being discussed relating to disengagement and for the mega keen among you – there’s a storify of the chat here. This exchange between Matt Charney and TeamBonding caught my eye:

Matt Charney and TeamBonding

The chat ebbed and flowed between encouragement and disbelief, and many points in between. What was key to me was how other things like Matt’s comment, and talk of trust, respect and feeling valued landed much more helpfully for people.

Feeling Valued

Surveylab also asked people to respond to the statement ‘I feel valued for what I do’. Whilst feeling valued is also subjective, I nevertheless think this is a much more interesting, powerful and accessible thing to ponder. It implies belonging, whereas the term employee engagement can feel divisive, us and them, to some people. In the survey results, 49% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, and of those people, 90% were overall, satisfied with their employer, 88% enjoyed coming to work, and 93% tried to contribute more than expected of them. By comparison, the figures for those who did not feel valued are 11%, 14% and 72% respectively.

Trust and Respect

Here’s what Surveylab found out when they asked people about trust, respect and fairness too.

Surveylab 2013 Workplace Survey Headlines

Once again, unsurprisingly, those who felt favourable about these important things also registered much higher satisfaction, enjoyment and willingness to contribute. I expect most of us can agree that making work better is important, and there clearly is a camp of employee engagement enthusiasts who think there way is the right way. But you have to ask yourself, if 80% of the workforce have never even heard of the term – isn’t it time to find a better way?


I’ve asked and been given permission to use some of the Surveylab data – I have no commercial interest in the Surveylab business and I’m not being paid to share this stuff. I just think the results of their survey are interesting, helpful and a lot more accessible than the nebulous world of employee engagement. If you are interested, the Surveylab blog will have more news as they unpack the learning from this 2013 survey.

Author: Doug Shaw

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

20 thoughts on “Employee Engagement – There has to be a better way”

  1. Okay Doug – count me the “no way I believe that statistic.” More info on the 1,000 survey participants… were they in hyperbolic chambers for the last 5 years? Were they dogs? No way a person – an employee or a manager – could NOT know or have heard of “employee engagement.” There has to be more behind that stat. Is it for small – I mean – very, very small businesses? Like 5 employees – that might be possible.

    I can believe the rest of the stats you shared but not the 80% never heard of employee engagement. Doesn’t pass the “smell test.”

    That, in turn, casts some doubt on the rest of the study.

        1. Hi Paul,

          Important question to ask.

          I don’t know think the respondents were all in statis chambers!

          We used a panel company to reach 1,000 people across the UK to complete the survey. They were pre-screened to be in full-time employment (at least 4 days a week) and not self-employed. We deliberately ran the survey over the course of a week to counter the risk of only getting results during office hours from people who are deskbound.

          Initially we were a bit surprised too, although really more disappointed that “employee engagement” is not more widely recognised.

          Only 3% of responses were from micro-companies (less than 10 employees).
          10% of responses from small companies (11-50 staff).
          46% work for organisations with more than 1,000 staff (469 people in the survey).

          35% of responses were from public sector workers.

          Amongst senior managers 2/3 have not heard of the phrase “employee engagement” but this group is a very low number (38 replies). Team leaders/supervisors and those who are not responsible for other staff who account for 3/4 of the responses – it is more than 4 out of 5.

          We also conducted user-testing via whatusersdo.com to watch how people completed the questionnaire. It is quite interesting listening to people’s thoughts as they answer the questions – they all paused at the EE question and said “nope” in their own words. The consensus seems to be that people who aren’t in the industry, generally haven’t heard of it.

          The Engage for Success movement published a report “Engagement through CEO’s eyes” and what was interesting there is that a couple of CEO’s identified the phrase as power words – creates an air of them and us. I think many organisation’s label their survey not as an “engagement survey” – probably/subconsciously for this very reason?

          I hope this helps.

          1. Thanks for the clarification. Still … eye opening and hard to digest. That is what happens inside the echo chamber I guess.

            I am SHOCKED by the low Senior Manager score – especially in the UK where there is a much more focused government intervention from what I’ve read re: McLeod Report. Seems a bit off – but it is what it is I guess.

  2. Cultural calamity in the financial and political arenas results in a perfect credit and liquidity storm in 07.

    Cue 5 years of PR sound bites from CEOs both externally and worse still within organisations promising culture change yet crafted by interim employees with no skin in the game.

    The DTI, a civil service dept founded in continuity of tenure, “sponsors” what becomes an engagement “dark star” to hoover up all of the many years of best practice in the internal communication and employee relations spheres, re-badge it “engagement” and flood the emerging social communication superhighways with what fast becomes a cliché term resulting in a mass an ice-cream headache. Why? Because virtually every metric during the downturn, as you point out, has shown that employee engagement levels have fallen and people have become sick of the very term.

    To cap it all, OBEs for the two “leaders” of the “employee engagement movement! Good old British establishment…………….

    I’m afraid to say that healthy competition between suppliers of “engagement services” and credible “thought leaders” pre “engagement movement” ensured a certain agility of mind, innovativeness and energy and led to improvements in the “lot” of the employee, albeit one organisation at a time. A bulky, pseudo government think tank can never hope to replicate this dynamism, especially when it fails to realise that employee wellbeing and stakeholder management is more about behaviour than message, culture than comms, system than soundbite and needs to flex to stay “real”.

    The now sadly clichéd “engagement movement” has managed to do one thing well, however. It has “kettled” and silenced the more vociferous critics during the worst of the downturn while bonuses were still factored into bankrupt balance sheets. And this has benefitted who exactly?

    You keep poking with that stick Doug.

    1. Cheers Ian – I love this contribution – dark stars and kettling all topped off with an ice cream headache – great stuff!

  3. I can believe the 80% figure, and I agree! more context/evidence around sampling would be useful. And even if we can debate the validity of 80%, the pattern that the twitter exchanges and your post point to mirrors my anecdotal experience as an employee and external consultant over the years. Employee engagement is something leadership teams and hr departments talk about, not staff. I hear people talk about wanting to hear from their organisation and leaders, about wishing they were listened to more, about wanting more honesty and openness, about the lack of acknowledgement/valuing that comes from taking a human interest.

    Employee engagement also fails simple linguistic test: does it distance or draw you toward the person or entity wishing you to engage? My hunch, and experience, is the former. It is mechanistic rather than human.

    Great post, Doug.


    1. Thanks Steve. What is interesting to me is that four out of five is high – and because it is high, and negative in this case – it draws doubt from people. I wonder if the result had been heavily slanted the other way – what reaction that might have provoked?

      More importantly – you have highlighted a real key issue here. For way too many – the term is divisive, it distances rather than draws people together. If you’ve not done so yet I suggest you check the Surveylab post I linked to at the start of this piece. In it you will find this extract from a report by Ashridge called Engagement Through CEO Eyes (as I write these words I hear The Adverts singing…old punk reference).

      One CEO called [the phrase “employee engagement”] “power words” which he believed “get in the way of great conversations and deep meaningful interactions“. Here, CEOs called for a language of engagement that breaks down implied hierarchies and instead enables people to work together towards a shared future.

    2. In today’s world I think you would be hard pressed to find a large-ish company that doesn’t have an annual employee engagement survey – that is my single data point for not understanding the result presented. With the sheer number of surveys given it seems implausible that 80% would not have heard the term.

      The other issues raised are all valid and part of the ongoing problem for employee engagement in general:
      1. No universally agreed upon definition
      2. No specific benchmark on what number is a good number for engagement
      3. Engagement is derived from self-reporting (notoriously bad starting point.)
      4. Is/can be – very emotionally charged – does not lend itself to quantification
      5. Is variable over time – when I take the survey I could be engaged that day but not the next

      And the hits just keep on coming.

      It is problematic from the jump.

      1. Paul – I agree the surveying is being undertaken – and a lot of businesses call that survey other things. Annual staff survey, employee survey, attitude survey etc. I think in the main, it remains a practitioner term. I love your list too, thanks.

        Let me share here a great piece of feedback that has appeared over on Facebook in response to this post:

        Lots of US and THEM language being used by HR “experts”. It’s the US and THEM attitude that stops people from buying in to EE. Plus it sounds like the usual bullshit psycho babble along the lines of “Let’s all jump into the thought Jacuzzi and see what bubbles to the surface”. Just saying!

        As always I look forward to further excellent debate with you both online now, and in real life again, next year.

        1. Too true. Engagement requires both parties get involved. You don’t get engagement simply through loading on benefits and perks. There has to be quid pro quo from the employee as well… they can’t be passive. But we’re venturing into some tangential discussions best left for noisey pubs fueled by whiskey and ale…

  4. What that goes to show, Paul, is that Boards are paid to lead their organisations in the manner best suited to achieving results. If those results are to be sustained over time, there are “nurturing “best practices” they can draw from.
    In Organisation Development terms these include elements like:
    – setting a “compelling want” which could be termed a vision or mission
    – agreeing objectives and a plan that has both end results and enabling activity in support of that with consistent application throughout the organisation
    – connecting employees with both and ensuring feedback loops etc are in place
    – equipping line managers to manage

    Call the whole process and elements theirein whatever you like but it has to be personalised to the unique conditions faced by each organisation and don’t feel compelled to “follow the crowd” as they’re usually playing catch up, chasing a band wagon!

  5. I do wonder if Employee engagement is reserved for the big corporates and the body of consultants that try to support them so a small percentage. Outside of that, across the range of SME’s and sectors I would agree there is probably little awareness.
    From my limited dealings in this sector and my mate who runs an automotive supply business who keeps me grounded, their concerns are delivery, growing the business and whether their staff motivated and doing the best job they can.
    Thats what matters and surely thats what we need to get back to?

  6. As a former employee of big corporates (and a successful Line Manager for most of that period) the term “Employee Engagement” is a massive turn off for the majority of the workforce as it simply reeks of “HR speak” which doesn’t resonate with people that actually do the work.

    Many HR initiatives are viewed poorly by the workforce because they are perceived simply as the latest gimmick to show that senior management cares about their staff – this is then usually contradicted by the actions of the senior management on a day to day basis (hence the cynicism/sceptical view)

    I am certain that the 80% in this survey understand the concept of Employee Engagement, however they probably just don’t recognise yet another example of useless corporate jargon created by management consultants and HR professionals.

  7. I know, why don’t we call it ‘satisfaction’, ’employee satisfaction’ that’s it – Eureka -I’ve only gone and done it! Found a new term for ’employee engagement’, And I thought I was wasting my time pondering this issue again. Come on guys, follow the band quick before some learned HR scholar points out the difference between engagement and satisfaction.
    My whippet was disengaged, couldn’t be bothered, lacking enthusiasm and completely indifferent to our hike around the beautiful Hampshire countryside this morning – as her leader I observed she needed perking up if she was going to gain any enjoyment and benefit. I explained how I felt about her indifference and that it was her duty to demonstrate interest and enthusiasm – nothing! I went on to explain that I treat her with respect, carefully select routes for her safety and enjoyment – nothing! In desperation ‘MUNTJAC’ I screamed – her ears pricked up, her body language changed – she was ‘engaged’, ‘focused’, ‘on task’ call it what you like her eyes were scanning the horizon, her nose was in overdrive, she exuded enthusiasm. One word is all it took to motivate her – why did it take me so long to identify her needs?
    Why do leaders find it so difficult?
    Because they don’t look hard enough, listen to psycho-babble and don’t try to find the magic word for long enough – or as Matt says lose the forgotten two magic words ‘thank you’

  8. These words count:

    “trust, respect and feeling valued”

    Add transparency and authenticity and you are halfway there in terms of things that ultimately matter and which drive the things we would all like to see at work. Engagement is business bollocks lets face it, although a lucrative one it seems. For me, its simply an outcome, a state. And without the words above, it will never be.

    Re the survey, thats the problem with stuff like this. I know how ‘panel company’ stuff works – not at all reliable so wouldn’t read too much into that. Good news perhaps is that 80% of 1000 people have not been sullied by such a bullshit term eh?

    Wider studies with more credibility, such as the Edelman Trust Barometer, now in its 13th year are probably better.


    Not directly an engagement survey (Thank god) but very insightful. CEO’s and Government official or regulator remain the least trusted sources.

    Nice post fella.

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