Employee Engagement: re-stating the bleeding obvious

Richard Branson in his new book, A Virgin: Secrets They Won't Teach You At Business School, shared his reflection on his/Virgin's success "but it has to be said: it takes an engaged, motivated and committed workforce to deliver a first-class product or service."

The fact is, despite a considerable body of evidence that employees who are well managed, engaged, motivated and committed deliver better results, Branson's statement still has to be said.

This month Employee Engagement gurus David MacLeod and Nita Clarke of
Engage for Success, published Nailing The Evidence a compendium of evidence by Dr Bruce Rayton, Tanith Dodge and Gillian D'Analeze that's unequivocally addressed to "...all those managers and leaders who are still semi convinced that this topic (employee engagement) needs prioritising".

>Engagement of an individual depends on what is salient at the time for that person... This makes engagement measures slippery, inconstant and imprecise.

So what is the case against employee engagement? One reason is the managerial paradigm of regarding workers as labour inputs. Simply, one unit of labour is substitutable with another, an assumption that underpins basic textbook economics models and illustrated beautifully in Chaplin's classic Modern Times.  

Most economists would readily admit that these simplistic models, useful as they are, largely exclude the psychological dimensions of work- all those factors central to engaged employees like meaning and purpose, affirmation of identity etc. Obtaining a first-class product or service is no longer simply about working the unit of labour harder; although there are employers and managers who continue to do so.

Another is a healthy scepticism about engagement measures. Despite claims by numerous engagement consultancies about their tools (and there are many), the measurement of engagement is not especially rigorous.

The lack of clear definition(s) for employee engagement mean(s) that across the range of survey tools you can never be sure what it is you are measuring - satisfaction, commitment, malcontent, socialisation needs, insecurity, fear etc.  It is from the limitations of measurement that academics like Richard Beatty (Rutgers) claim that "there is
no evidence that engaging employees impacts financial returns".

Engagement of an individual depends on what is salient at the time for that person.  Individual differences, circumstances (oftentimes external and outside of work) and personal needs vary enormously. This makes engagement measures slippery, inconstant and imprecise.

Employee engagement specialists would have you believe that if you apply the appropriate degree and quality of romance, employees will swoon and reciprocate with every fibre of their mind and body. I'm not sure why anyone would believe that but millions have been spent by well-meaning employers to tease out oodles of discretionary effort from their seemingly oblivious, passive employees.

That is not to say that engagement is unimportant. At an interpersonal level, engagement is very straightforward.  It centres on whether the individual is respected and valued as a human being with all their attendant idiosyncrasies, aspirations, talents and needs. The underpinning principle is age old: "Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12).

This command has been usually called the 'golden rule', a name given to it on account of its great value. As the employer, you put yourself in the place of the other, and ask what you would expect of those who work for you. When sincerely followed, this is a spirit level for when you are veering too far on partiality, greed, unkindness and unfairness. It requires a high level of reflexivity but as the justice of your behaviours is seen by all people it shouldn't be too difficult to adhere to.

Something of the same sentiment was found among the Jews, ancient Greeks and Romans, and is found in the writings of Confucius.  This underpins Rawl's
Theory of Justice as Fairness - where he asks us to imagine that the parties are 'trustees' of the others' interests, and seek to do as best as they can for those that each trustee represents.

Nailing the Evidence seeks to win over sceptics - doubters - to engagement. Well meaning, but perhaps mistaken.

It's not the evidence but what you believe that's important. The evidence in the report is probably as good as it'll ever be. The correlation between engaged employees and better outputs is both evidentially and intuitively compelling (*caveat that I didn't check up on the cited sources). 

Engaging staff requires an abandonment of the paradigm of people as inputs (re Modern Times) and people as business risks. It requires the adoption of the "golden rule" - that is that people matter,
 not because they possess the capacity for discretionary effort (which is important) but simply because they are.


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