Woolly thinking or an inexact science? Unpicking employee engagement

On Monday, the Engage for Success movement held a conference on ‘the future of employee engagement’, #E4Sfutures on Twitter. The core of the day was presentations from renowned academics and business leaders who contributed to a recent collection of thought pieces on the theme.

The thinking behind the work is that over the last decade, employee engagement has become cemented in the worlds of many practitioners and consultants, but the area is characterised by various weaknesses. It’s come thus far, but could do with taking stock. 

One of the big debates we grappled with yesterday is whether employee engagement is sufficiently robust as a concept. A particular criticism we heard from one of the authors, Rob Briner, is that without agreed definitions and measurements of employee engagement, we may be looking at very different things.

The language of employee engagement can be – as some accuse it of being – a ruse to get employees to willingly exploit themselves. I’ve blogged about this previously and Linda Holbeche, another of the thought piece authors, looks in more depth at the danger of losing sight of employee interests.  

But there is also a danger in being overly dismissive. To give you an idea of what I mean, I’d say a recent Forbes blog by Liz Ryan falls prey to this. She describes an organisation where the underlying message was: engage with the vision or face redundancy. ‘The beatings will stop when morale improves’, as one person quotes in the blog comments. Making employees feel guilty for the low morale that comes from poor leadership, one could add. The threat of being branded ‘not a team player’.

This is totally out of synch with notions of staff morale, well-being, satisfaction, person-job fit etc – notions that employee engagement is supposed to draw upon. And we need to be vocal about this being the case, because Ryan’s response is to dismiss employee engagement wholesale.

Sure, an annual ‘engagement survey’ is a limited way to give employees a voice. If that’s the extent of your ‘employee engagement strategy’, and the general culture is one of threat, there’s a problem. But just because that’s what some organisations are doing doesn’t mean we should abandon the notion of engagement, as it stands out pretty damn clearly as a misuse of the term. Employee enragement would be more accurate. 

We should kick employee engagement’s tyres. We should always be prepared to test and question our thinking, to make it stronger. But I worry that it’s increasingly de rigueur to rubbish employee engagement.

So how about this: a SWOT analysis of employee engagement. I think it would be sensible, a way to take the criticisms on board, strengthen what’s been done, appraise this area of people management practice and research in a realistic, healthy way. For example... 

The strengths might include: employee engagement has put good people management practice firmly on the radar of business leaders in a way that other concepts failed to do. What it adds is to bring together employee-focused concepts like job satisfaction and quality of working life with business-focused concepts like commitment and shared purpose.

The weaknesses might include: employee engagement has not been pinned down to a clear agreed definition and is so far off a single agreed measure that we may as well give up trying. As Briner has consistently argued, this means that we barely get off the ground in establishing whether this characteristic of employees leads to better performance. By academic standards – which are the only ones that count here - the evidence for business benefits is weak (except when looking at the more specific Work Engagement Scale of Schaufeli and colleagues at Utrecht University). 

The opportunities might include: mainly, right now, I think the main one is to use the points of challenge to build better understanding and practices on people management. Engage with the sceptics, take on board their valid concerns. Thus, if you talk about ‘employee engagement’, make sure you have a shared understanding of specifically what it is in your context (Paul Sparrow discusses this in his thought piece). But there are other challenges too. As John Purcell argues in his thought piece, so much of what’s good about employee engagement rests on effective employee voice and yet this is often an overlooked area.

The threats might include: if we don’t seek a consensus on how employee engagement should be defined, it will remain a term that can easily be misused; a cloak for disregarding and damaging people management. You don’t have to be a fully paid up constructivist to know that the words we use and the meanings we attach to them are important. Vagueness supports misuse. Another threat is that we are so signed up to employee engagement measures that we don’t admit their weaknesses. We need to be honest and robust. But we should also beware the other threat: that of throwing out the employee engagement baby with the bathwater that is its sloppy application.  

#engmtSWOT, anyone?

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  • I feel it is worth looking at employee engagement from the outside in. At the moment much discussion is from the inside out perspective eg if we do this then our people will do and feel that. My outside in perspective starts with an external perspective of an organisation ie the customer's view.I am sure that we have all been served by an employee who is highly engaged and also served by employees who are not. We can clearly tell the difference and we make judgments accordingly.

    My experience (working with companies on employee engagement and customer excellence) tells me that engaged employees deliver great service, grow and retain customers and increase advocacy. Those employees who are well led, cared for, equipped and resourced deliver great service. Before we begin any customer service training we address the engagement strategy first and then evaluate this against customer feedback - it's a winning formula.  


  • Employee Engagement is clearly an outcome of 'something'. It is somehow related to / to do with alignment, synchronicity - harmony, but is not homogeneous, not discrete, not an 'entity' (hope I'm not completely overstating the blindingly obvious). Vineet Nayar shows that it is connected with how valued employees feel, their relationship with managers (hierarchically-organisationally), and maybe their sense of a reasonable degree of autonomy (?).

    Perhaps its very heterogeneity makes it difficult to measure 'accurately' (as opposed to 'woollily') or would make any 'necessary' measurement potentially quite complex and tedious.

    As a proxy for engagement we could, with reasonable justification - safety, look to our customers' perceptions, although any singular modality is fraught.