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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  • Wilson as you know i agree with you all on all these points.  The unwillingness, in some organisations at least, to accept the subtle nuances of people management and the need to translate these principles into pure ROI input-output ratios rather than accept that there are intangible benefits that are not always that easy to measure short term but which have long term impact, continues to have a detrimental impact.  

    So often I see fairly simple, but insightful data, such as why people leave (usually due to a breakdown in the line manager relationship, or the  need to seek a fufifilling career elsewhere etc) duly recorded and then filed away never to be seen again. Such a waste, and yet year on year the same organisation goes through the motion of doing its staff engagement survey and attempting to respond through a range of 'initiatives' and yet invariably see this as a stand alone exercise, and as 'doing engagement'.  Some managers still talk of 'driving up engagement levels' which in my mind always conjures up images of someone turning a screw somewhere and watching to see how the troops respond.  

    As you say, Engagement is about the subtle nuances of organisational culture, of how people are treated at work, how well they are listened to, and whether the environment in which they work enables them to feel trusted, valued, motivated, and inspired by what they do, no matter what level they do it at.   As Sam says so nicely, finding that 'sweet spot' where organisational and personal goals overlap may be they key.  Organisational and personal goals may not align perfectly, but surely if organisations are recruiting the right people into the right job, it shouldn't be impossible to find that sweet spot!  

  • Thanks Wilson

    Great article. I'd agree there's some that will never get it, but I think the collated evidence might turn a few agnostics.

    You question "...why employees would passively go along..." and I think that's what Engage 4 Success are getting at. And I don't they are saying that they should be passive - they should be going along because it's in their best interests to do so. Because they can see their part in the bigger picture, they get recognised for efforts (etc etc - I'm not writing a definition of engagement factors here!)

    What I'd certainly endorse is that engagement efforts should be about finding a sweet spot where organisational and personal goals overlap. Then employees will make informed decisions that benefit everyone.

  • Thank you Elaine and Ali for your comments.

    I think the report is timely but mistaken only in the sense of its espoused aim - turning the sceptics. As you've (Elaine) rightly pointed out, the language of ROI is inappropriate to flexible working and to employee engagement because those who demand financial output measures before they will treat either issues seriously will never get it.

    The point of the Nailing the Evidence is that it provides those who 'get it' encouragement to deepen their investment in and fair treatment of  employees.  We all talk about 'authenticity'. I fail to see how if you start from the premise that engagement is about getting more for less why employees would passively go along. Being engaged is a choice, one entirely in the gift of the employee. If s/he doesn't want to play ball, insincere bribes won't help.

    As for HR leading the charge, if they don't subscribe and defend to the 'golden rule', I question their role as models of people management. One of the enablers of engagement identified by Engage4Success is 'voice' and as Nita constantly drums on - it's not a comms strategy, it's about genuinely listening and then responding. I don't think many in HR have the nouse or the stomach for holding the line and often you can just look to the quality of the org's leadership to understand why.

    Bringing the evidence in one neat report is a good thing and no right thinking people manager will dispute its contribution, but the evidence has been there for a while. Those who still don't get it, I fear never will; even if they publicly sign up to an engagement programme because it's become the done thing.

    In summary, you can bring the horse to water but...

  • An eloquently written post! I like how you have highlighted the variability of engagement within any individual and the nuances of it.  It is a complex concept, although as you rightly point out is actually straight forward in many ways. Treat people as human beings!

    You and I and the many others who work in this field don't need convincing and for them the 'restating the bleeding obvious' title probably resonates.  I have had conversations with  a few consultants along this theme.  

    The people that are working with consultancies, academics etc have already 'got it' and don't need convincing.  They frequently get it on the intuitive level that you speak about.  

    I was interesting to read that you see the report as well meaning but perhaps mistaken.  In what way?  Be keen to hear more of what you meant there.

    From my experience there are also many individuals out there working within organisations struggling to be able to get the support they need because they first have to make a compelling business case.  

    Their CEO, or CFO just isn't convinced yet and they needed something so compelling that it just becomes a no brainer.  Some needed to see their peers taking this seriously, before they are willing to take action.  (hence the report, the letter to the times, the CEO breakfast etc etc)

    It is not that these people don't need to get the emotional element too - they do as that is a key driver of action, but they also need to have the rational compelling part to convince shareholders / other stakeholders that focussing on people is the way forward.   That is what I believe.  

    Time will tell - so far the response from the people the report was written for has been very positive.  The proof will be in the pudding I guess.  Does it help people make a compelling business case?  Does this help them to get the support in the business they need to take action? If it does, and the v early signs are positive, then it has done it's job.  



  • Wilson, What a great and timely post!  I was at the Gerontology Society of America conference recently discussing why employers are so reluctant to embrace flexible employment options.  The research, the media, workers, advocacy groups - all have sent a clear message to employers that it is the right thing to do.  There are many reasons why they don't adopt it, but the main consensus of this conference of academics, researchers and advocates was that employers only speak one language...ROI and we haven't been good at presenting it that way.  It was a sad realisation that in order to 'sell' the idea of implementing flexibility initiatives we had to sell the cost benefit to employers.  The issue I am grappling with is that the employee engagement message has been out there for a while in regard to flex, to no avail.  We are starting to get some cost saving metrics from organisations who have implemented official flex and remote working policies - and they are really impressive - so that will give us more support for an ROI debate with employers. Interestingly, the discussion at the GSA conference also asked who is the advocate for workers and the policies that really help them in the workforce?, i.e. shouldn't HR be the bridge for policy to be implemented in business?  But does HR take that role?  And I'll leave you with that question.  Because as I ponder this issue myself, I am resigned to thinking that HR aren't fulfilling this role. As a last point, I agree with you that 'the right thing do' should organically permeate organisations, but I'm increasingly skeptical it will ever be that way.