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.

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.

No You Can’t. Yes You Can.

Dealing with the mortgage company

Over the weekend I spotted this cartoon doing the rounds on the web. If anyone can tell me where it originates from I would love to credit the artist. As I looked at it, the image spoke to me of my relationship with my mortgage company.

No You Can’t

The current tracker rate on our Natwest mortgage expires at the end of this month. I’ve been in conversation with the bank about the choices we have available for the next few years, and we’ve reached a decision. Last week I call Natwest to book a new deal over the phone. I’m told I can’t. I have to wait over a week for a callback because no one is available to process my request.

I don’t need any investment advice, and I know the deal I want, if they’d give me access to the computer – I’d book the thing in myself! And there’s a sting in the tail. If by the time the Natwest calls me back the deal has expired, we’ve missed out – tough luck. A few weeks ago I could have made the arrangement on the spot – since then, apparently there’s been a ‘policy change’. We to and fro for a while. I ask to speak with a supervisor, once again I hit the no one is available wall.

I try my luck on Twitter and the bank responds quickly and gives me another number to try, and I end up in the same situation. The Twitter version of Natwest expresses sympathy.

NatWest Twitter Expresses Sympathy

I appreciate the sentiment, and sympathy don’t pay the rent.

I have to settle for an appointment at the end of next week, and a call back from a supervisor within 24 hours – though I’m assured they’ll be able to do no more than that which has already been offered.

‘Natwest – Helpful Banking’ runs the strap line. Sorry but I ain’t feeling it.

Yes You Can

It’s Saturday morning, and the Natwest supervisor phones me and offers to process my new mortgage deal – right there – on the spot. I accept the offer and a half hour later, we’ve blundered through a vaguely incompetent call and have done the deal, two days after being told that this wouldn’t be possible before next Friday.

Pleased and Disappointed

The deal is done. I shan’t deny it – I’m pleased about that, although I genuinely worry when the customer knows more about the product being ordered than the sales person.

We’ve had to jump through hoops to make it happen, I’m not pleased about that, and I can’t imagine the Natwest is either. Time has been wasted, disempowered employees have been disengaged (well they would have been if they knew what it meant – more on that another day), systems have failed, and process has been broken in order to patch up a failed experience. Plenty of HR survey results and white papers will extoll the benefits of an empowered workforce. And I think until HR goes beyond HR, and helps people to join the dots right through the organisation and on to customers, suppliers and more, empowerment will remain high on the buzzword chart and low on action.

I have a great week in store and I hope you do too. If during this week you can find and solve a customer problem through making it easier for your people to deliver better service, then my hope will become your reality.