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.

Support Act – Part Two

As promised, here is my next set of scribblings, my interpretation of the second part of the engagement taskforce “guru group” meeting. I can barely bring myself two write those two words. Guru. Group…..shudder! I really don’t like that term – enough said on that.

Part two of the meeting involved a discussion at tables for twenty minutes to decide what activity we thought the taskforce should prioritise. Now if getting answers to the first question had at times proved tricky – what followed was a little more challenging. I often observe that people sometimes need gentle reminding and refocusing on the matter in hand. Folk are generally great at offering opinions – not always so good at answering questions. And I find this often gets even trickier when it comes to making specific actionable suggestions. I want to be clear – I’m a part of this group and therefore partly responsible. I’m not singling it out, this is behaviour I observe often and so I was not surprised to see it here.

Our table discussion started and it was almost all theoretical. I sat and listened, waiting for action to emerge from theory. I waited for over ten minutes before interjecting and suggesting that with half our allotted time gone, we should move from theory to practice. Here’s what we managed to come up with:

  • Experiment more – be open to trying things differently and learn from them, don’t punish mistakes in this experimental environment
  • Why is the engagement taskforce here? Clarify it? Its intention is to achieve what? How do taskforce members see it contributing to other things?
  • Do more qualitative analysis
  • Involve younger people
  • Stop doing employee engagement surveys
  • Use social tools to help create a community resource

After the twenty minutes were up each table was invited to set out its stall. I must stress that what follows is what I heard – it is not some official output. I tried really hard to capture what people were saying and just like before I’m sure I will have missed stuff. So here goes:

Transcript from the Engagement Taskforce Guru Group Meeting held at 1 Victoria Street London on 19 May 2011

Question #2 what things do we think the taskforce should prioritise and address first?

What’s in it for the employer and employee? Need both for UK plc

Share experiences and stories of employee “voice”.

Identify where improvement has been sustained and share – what is the succession plan?

Shareholders as blockers

How does a manager become engaging?

Engagement as part of core values

Share reality of good practice

The language is too simplistic

How do we deal with a U shape of engagement where the people at the top and the front line are engaged and middle management isn’t?

Leadership styles

Is employee engagement too passive could it be more two way?

Use social tools to help give voice

Create a community resource – open source employee engagement

3 tensions:

1 – A discipline, on the surface it’s disposable deeper it sustains, create meaning, it’s an enabler not an outcome

2 – Data versus insight, quantitative versus qualitative

3 – What’s in it for the employee and the employer? Value congruence – wellbeing

Why are you (the taskforce) a part of this? Passion? Gain? Personal and give and share?

Experiment together – try new stuff and see what works and what doesn’t

Stop doing engagement surveys, at least for a while. Stop the measurement and focus more on the doing

Embodiment of engagement

Convince sceptics

Twelve months time looks like what?

Survey versus intelligent data

Civil service, engagement has gone down, and pockets have gone up – why?

Leadership style for engagement – what is it?

Don’t want a set of tools for middle management

Separate the engagement index from bonuses

Blank sheet – ask employees what they want to do – not a choice of x, y or x

Career development

How do the armed forces create engagement?

Challenge the assumption that scores should go up every year – this is not sustainable

There are some things in this list which interest me and at the same time I’m not very comfortable with it. Maybe we need a clearer view on what resources the taskforce is to invest into the project to help focus the thinking, but for me – this output is too loose and too theoretical. When a colleague at our table read out my stop doing the surveys request and focus on acting on what people are saying – that got a laugh. I had to stress that I was quite serious and I’d like this request put to the taskforce. I wonder if it will make it onto the list?

So there you have it – my views on an interesting gathering last week. It’s early days so I ask that we don’t judge too harshly yet. I will be interested to see what emerges post the taskforce meeting scheduled for June 8th. And if there is anything you wish to add to this post I would be very pleased to hear from you.