Opening up Engagement

The concept of employee engagement is a pretty divisive issue. Some people think it’s the answer to many organisational woes, others that it’s little more than the corporate wolf of unpaid overtime in fluffy sheep’s clothing. The idea has been kicking around for about a quarter of a century, and it’s widely recognised that in his 1990 article, “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work.” William Kahn provided an early formal definition of personal engagement. He described it as:

“The harnessing of organisation members’ selves to their work roles; in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performances.”

Since then it’s become a more widely debated idea, and many businesses use surveys and other tools to try and understand it better, and even to try and measure it. I’d advise caution here, as trying to link simple measurements to more abstract human qualities, doesn’t always go to plan.

Like many others, I’ve spent time and effort looking at engagement and what it might mean for us. I volunteered in the discovery phases of what was to become Engage for Success, a process which I disengaged myself from after a few years because although I witnessed plenty of good conversations, I wasn’t seeing any significant shifts in the way we work. I left the matter to one side until the good people at Symposium events contacted me recently and invited me to attend their forthcoming Employee Engagement Summit. I’m happy to go along and see what’s changing – here are a couple of thoughts on what would help reopen my interests.

Improving Responsiveness

I was recently in a conversation with a friend whose work patterns are currently undergoing a lot of shift. The project they are currently working on involves lots of deadlines, lots of travel, and multiple points of accountability and responsibility. The work is mostly interesting, and quite hectic – with the result that my friend’s mood, or level of engagement if you prefer, varies frequently and significantly.

The fluidity of work and our need to be adaptable is often poorly served by many business processes – some of which may be necessary. When it comes to the employee engagement survey as a necessary business process, I’m not convinced.

This scenario I discovered when talking to my friend is not uncommon and is an excellent demonstration of why the shelf life of employee engagement survey results may be too brief to be useful. I think we all feel dramatically different about our work from day to day, and sometimes hour to hour. “How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?

I’m hoping to hear about new ways in which organisations are trying to be more responsive to employees’ needs.

Broadening the debate

Continuing the conversation with my friend, she suggests that more broadly, maybe engagement is a symptom, rather than a goal or outcome. It’s what occurs when people have challenging, meaningful work and feel valued. It can also be a great avenue to discuss really important issues, like diversity and inclusion, in ways that don’t make people feel defensive and shut down. I’m keen to learn if and how organisations are exploring the concept in this way. Previously I’ve seen thinking on the subject get quite stagnant. When engagement is such a broad concept, there should always be room for creative and important work inside the idea. I’m hoping I will find some on March 10th.

A version of this post was first published on the Symposium web site.

Author: Doug Shaw

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

One thought on “Opening up Engagement”

  1. Hello Doug,

    I value your keen observations as well as your openness to possibilities around engagement in the workplace. Your statement that, “Some people think it’s the answer to many organisational woes, others that it’s little more than the corporate wolf of unpaid overtime in fluffy sheep’s clothing,” struck a chord with me. I once tweeted the provocative formula that employee engagement = employee enslavement. That was born from my experience in the 90’s working in London and witnessing large businesses installing retail services (convenience stores, gift shops, cleaners, gyms, etc.) within their buildings. Dressed up as a benefit to employees, it was abundantly clear that employees worked more, spending days breathing the unfiltered air circulated around their cubicles. The tactics of the 90’s have evolved into the engagement practices of this decade.

    Although that sounds cynical, I nonetheless ascribe to Dan Pink’s view that we all yearn for purpose and that work has an intrinsic meaning to us as humans. You allude to the challenges in front of us when you note that, “trying to link simple measurements to more abstract human qualities, doesn’t always go to plan.” In that context, engagement does have potential to enrich our lives and its practices have a positive role to play. I look forward to reading more about your insights after the Symposium.


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