Employee Engagement – on trend or heading out of fashion?

A few recent experiences have caused me to reflect on the concept of ‘employee engagement’.

The first was this excellently written critique by Larry Myler in Forbes. I’d heartily recommend reading it for yourself, but would summarise it as a cautionary tale of businesses that get so wrapped up in managing the process of engagement, that they forget to concentrate on actually engaging people. Not seeing the wood for the trees, if you like…

This strikes a chord. I’ve had a number of conversations recently with clients struggling to make ‘engagement’ tangible. Frequent refrains include: “The problem is people don’t see it as engagement, they just think its good management”. And “Employees don’t really want to be ‘engaged’. They just care about their own jobs, not a business-wide process.”

Nevertheless, as Myler points out, the rationale behind improving levels of engagement between employees and an organisation is convincing. The evidence that this leads to business benefits is compelling – and besides, we all rationally understand that strong relationships between an employer and employee is fundamentally good business.

The key to realising the benefits without getting lost in the process is, I believe, four-fold:

1) Stop talking so much about ‘engagement’. Its pervasiveness as a term makes it difficult to define, easy to misunderstand, and therefore frequently counterproductive. I’d argue that the only people who need to understand the full theory and attach the label are people running and sponsoring the programmes.

For the rest of the organisation, it’s about….

2) Concentrating instead on the desired business outcomes and direct benefits to an individual. Not ‘higher engagement levels’, as measured by the surveys, but the business challenges and priorities that are driving this desire, and the little things that make a tangible difference to people’s lives. Business priorities could be increasing discretionary effort; reducing the number of sick days or minimising staff turnover, for example. Personal benefits could be having your opinion valued, the opportunity to reduce frustrations.

Involve as many people as possible in the organisation to come up with solutions to these issues, and get their support in implementing the actions they design.

3) Developing core skills, particularly amongst managers. The ‘soft skills’ that sit at the heart of much good modern management practice. How to communicate with people. How to actively listen, and to facilitate a group discussion. How to give and receive feedback, ask questions rather than provide answers. How to anticipate and manage emotional reactions to change that are entirely natural and predictable.

4) Convincing people that the soft stuff matters. By finding and publicising examples of the benefits greater staff involvement has resulted in. Critically, these examples need to be as tangible as possible, around challenges people will relate to. It can be achieved by helping leaders to make the effort (and spend the time) to stay in touch with people at the shop floor of your organisation.

For me, the jury’s out on whether the term ‘Employee Engagement’ stays the course, or is replaced by the ‘new black’ of management thinking. I’m really not sure it matters.

What does matter is that businesses are in touch with the needs, attitudes and preferences of their employees, and seek to create mutually beneficial and satisfactory relationships. That makes plain good business sense.

If you’re hoping to realise the benefits of employee engagement in your organisation and are looking for advice and support, get in touch.