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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What is Employee Engagement? Ask Archie!

In my Engage for Success launch blog post on Monday about defining employee engagement and measuring employee engagement, I also mentioned we heard from Archie Norman, currently chairman at ITV. Archie (I will refer to him by his first name, I hope he doesn’t mind) was invited to talk to us about what employee engagement means to him, and after David MacLeod introduced Archie as the Godfather of employee engagement, I was keen to hear what he had to say. Here are a few things that caught my attention:

Work is becoming voluntary

Archie said that young people are more and more deciding whether they want to work, where they want to work and for whom. The last two I get, but I felt his first assertion was somewhat removed from reality. Most people want and indeed probably need to work, and I couldn’t help wondering what kind of response his statement would get from the roughly one million young people currently unemployed in the UK?

Knowledge workers

Archie said that businesses are becoming more focused on knowledge, skills and the service people deliver, less about costs. I certainly think there is a strong connection between the employee service and customer service experience, and if you can get the employee piece right, the customer service flows more easily and meaningfully. And I think most people would agree that improving knowledge and skills is vital, yet the ‘training’ budget is often one of the first to be hit in tough times. As more and more big companies are run by bean counters, I’m not sure I see the cost challenge going away any time soon.

Customer service

Archie said that ‘we go to places to shop that have humanity’, and he also said that ‘self esteem defines service’. These are powerful observations and I was pleased to hear talk of things more emotional, and less functional.

Engagement is not a survey

“Engagement is not an HR activity, although HR should be responsible for measuring it,” Archie said. “And it’s not a survey. Engagement is about leadership living the values.” Unsurprisingly I disagree with anyone being responsible for measuring engagement and I do think that if engagement is about meaning, purpose and shared values, it should flow everywhere in and out of the business, through leadership and way beyond.

Hierarchy is dead

‘I haven’t had an office since I worked at McKinsey’, Archie told us. “Hierarchy is dead,” he said. “Offices and all that have to go. Job titles are meaningless.” He encouraged total transparency and said leaders should reward staff for speaking up and telling them what should be changed about the company.

I’m curious to know how Archie felt when after finishing his talk we were shown a video of some 40 CEOs all giving their blessing to employee engagement. Most, if not all, were older, white men, doubtless very well paid indeed. The fact that this collection of the great and good lacked any obvious diversity was disheartening enough, and the assertion that somehow the Engage for Success movement might succeed thanks to the exhortations of the 40 leaves me feeling Hierarchy is still very much alive.

You can read another angle on Archie’s talk courtesy of HR Magazine here and Graham Frost has covered the event more broadly here too. And as always, I’d love to hear your views, particularly on the death or otherwise, of hierarchy.

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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.