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Not another definition of employee engagement

Simon Russell , 18 Jun 2012

engagement

Research from the CIPD and Kingston Business School’s Centre for Research in Employment Skills and Society (CRESS) proposes two new levels of employee engagement – the ‘transactional’ and the ‘emotional’.

I think this distinction is superfluous, but the report is not all bad: flick to page 12 and you'll find a grouchy engineer telling it like it is: "You're not here because you like working, you're here to keep a roof over your head and [for] the money, let's face it."

Let's face it: many people at work would rather be somewhere else. This is why we don't like Mondays and the National Lottery still does good business.

Employment is a transaction, a contract, an exchange. What's more, employers would always prefer employees to give a little more and take a little less; that's why notions of 'discretionary effort' creep into so many definitions of employee engagement.

There are many people who love their work and go beyond their job descriptions to achieve remarkable things. But these aren't necessarily the people who sing the company song and tick all the right-hand boxes on the engagement survey.

Often the most highly skilled and motivated individuals are not especially loyal to their current employer. Some top performers exist in a state of smouldering frustration with the organisation that hired them.

They do what they do for their patients, or their pupils, or their clients, or their family, or the rest of the team - or so they can go windsurfing at the weekend.

According to the researchers, people who work to earn a living are only transactionally engaged. They might be the best sales executives or reconstructive surgeons in the history of the world, but they are only "happy to exhibit the behaviour of engagement" as long as they keep getting paid and promoted as promised. It turns out these thought criminals will move on to better opportunities as soon as they become available. But who wouldn't move on to a better opportunity? How are you defining better opportunity if the impact of emotional engagement is to make a reasonably intelligent person turn it down?

Organisations, by and large, are not that lovable. Of course there are exceptions, but setting the cultural outliers as your model will make for some pretty weird rules. When the folks at Facebook decided to celebrate their sudden enrichment by working all night, what did you think?

"A little bit more of that kind of spirit and we all might be in a better place!"

Honestly? Or did you think of all the stuff you might have done with a million dollars and a night off? Aren't the most engaged people those with the most interesting and rewarding jobs to do? And aren't many of those people dispensing with employers altogether, preferring to work on their own?

Why should individuals put the employer at the centre of their emotional universe? Companies breezily claim 'people are our most valuable asset' and then get rid of those assets as soon as they can. Employers have told people that there is no such thing as a job for life and directed them to think in terms of 'Me plc'. It does seem a bit much to get sniffy with people who are simply taking that advice at face value.

Even if we accept the distinction of emotional engagement, its effects are not always benign: employers who want to create 'performance cultures' often start by trying to shake out the comfortable, 'like-it-here' employees who are enjoying life far too much ever to move on.

There are several obvious things that a decent employer can do which will build good relationships with employees and help them to perform at their best. Many of them have to do with open communication, shared purpose and fair play. Most of them you could write on a piece of paper, right now, without further help. You can call it 'engagement' if you like, but this no more than good, basic management.

Back in 2006, David MacLeod and Nita Clarke found fifty different definitions of employee engagement; people have been adding to them feverishly ever since, like Jacob Marley to his chains, with no obvious impact on productivity or performance. We surely don't need more circular descriptions of employee engagement. We do need employers to have more confidence in their own common sense and a clear determination to do the right thing by their people, even - and perhaps especially - when facing unpalatable economic realities.

Simon Russell is director of consulting with the Optimal Practice of Work Group

 

14 comments on this article

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I agree

Natalie 18 Jun 2012

I agree with Simon that when I read this report, I felt disappointment when I saw there were further definitions of EE. There are other research reports from the Kingston consortium that I think are more actionable than this piece of work, and I always go back to Working Life: Employee Attitudes and Engagement 2006 (CIPD report) for some reminders about the imporance of taking individual differences into account. In my view, good management is what really counts. It continues to surprise me how little of that seems to be around.

opium for the masses

Lisa H 18 Jun 2012

The way we do things or culture is and always has been a critical component of business effectiveness. Engagement is just a reflection of how connected people feel to their organisation and unlike the latent cynicism in this post, it matters a lot. I buy into the notion that there can be both a rational and an emotional connection just as I've always bought into models like Maslow's hierarchy of needs and the notion that we have the luxury to worry about job satisfaction etc once we've covered off the basics. But it's a mark of an evolved society that more of the people rise above basics more of the time, is it not? What I don't buy into is the re-definition of engagement, time and again whether by the so-called engagement taskforce legitimised by the govt, or by anyone else for that matter. Why? Because it's being used as a substitute for taking action. People are rightly pretty annoyed right now as the downturn was caused by the top 2% who've been getting richer on the back of it, taking from the pensions of nurses and the like. In that sense, endless definitions for good management practice makes no sense at all other than to serve as a smokescreen for the otherwise obvious scandalous behaviour of a host of senior execs.

EE Defintion

Nima 18 Jun 2012

The extent to which EMPLOYEES are motivated to contribute to organizational success, and are willing to apply discretionary effort to accomplishing tasks important to the achievement of organizational goals - Kenexa's Defintion. They're the world leader in EE Surveys, so I trust their defintion more than anyone elses

MISSED THE POINT

Stanley Labovitz 18 Jun 2012

The definition means very little; its the cause and effect of the measurements of engagement. These measures impact a behavior or need, which when addressed, improves performance. That's what meant by monitizing engagement. Look to the author of any definition of engagement to see how they measure it..not describing it Oh..Stop drinking the Kenexa cool aid

Nima: are you working for Kenexa?

MB 18 Jun 2012

Hi Nima, There's a Nima on Twitter who tweets about employee engagement, and on 18th April said "thanks Kenexa for making me a Kenexan". Are you related? https://twitter.com/Marketing_King/status/192799486333026304

But Why?

Martin Haworth 18 Jun 2012

After being what I now see as a quite enlightened manager for much of my career, I now get the opportunity to see first hand management behaviours that are, in the main, worse than basic. I wonder if we have a case of managers kinda knowing what they should do, but not feeling compelled to in any way. A sort of skill blindness or limbo state. I'm afraid, in th largest organisations, senior managers have much blame to carry for poor engagement and the consequences (poor morale, commitment, loyalty, attendance, yada, yada, yada). Somehow these core relationship-based skills are just too hard. Martin

But Why?

Martin Haworth 18 Jun 2012

After being what I now see as a quite enlightened manager for much of my career, I now get the opportunity to see first hand management behaviours that are, in the main, worse than basic. I wonder if we have a case of managers kinda knowing what they should do, but not feeling compelled to in any way. A sort of skill blindness or limbo state. I'm afraid, in th largest organisations, senior managers have much blame to carry for poor engagement and the consequences (poor morale, commitment, loyalty, attendance, yada, yada, yada). Somehow these core relationship-based skills are just too hard. Martin

Nothing Made Sense... Who cares!

Scott Simmerman, Ph.D. 18 Jun 2012

One of my favorite quotes is, "Nothing made sense, and neither did anything else." I thought I read that in Joseph Heller's Catch 22, but a re-read failed to pick it up again. And that is my reaction to a lot of this nonsense about employee engagement not being important. Crap. Okay, some people DO work for the money and only for the money. Think about those people who worked for MGM under Samuel Goldwyn, who was quoted as saying, "When I want your opinion, I will give it to you." Okay, one would not expect a whole lot of job satisfaction from THAT employer. But the numbers that these accountant guys collect clearly show that an engaged workforce is a more productive workforce and that this impacts the financials as well as things like customer retention. New customers come expensively -- take all the advertising and divide by the number of NEW customers and the numbers are pretty shocking. OLD customers are retained and leave for price and dissatisfaction. Same with New Employees. They come because there are jobs and stay because there are benefits. And the costs of training a new employee up to above average performance is pretty high, since only half could even be expected to achieve above-average performance results! So, when the good, high-performers choose to leave, the holes that need to be filled are pretty large ones. And expensive black holes for revenues... Another definition? Who cares! Those just reflect words and I never did understand the meaningful difference between Missions and Visions and THAT argument has been going on for 40 years... For me, it all boils down to one simple thought: "Nobody Ever Washes a Rental Car." If people do not share a sense of ownership, if they do not have a sense of involvement and engagement, they can be expected NOT to care about the organization and the job. Their days are numbered and the countdown has begun. The Pin will hit The Balloon, the blowup will occur, and the costs of hiring and training and all that will begin. Nothing made sense. The cost of actually engaging someone is really pretty darn low and I can describe it in three words: ASK -- ASK -- ASK (and ye shall receive!)

Nothing Made Sense... Who cares!

Scott Simmerman, Ph.D. 18 Jun 2012

One of my favorite quotes is, "Nothing made sense, and neither did anything else." I thought I read that in Joseph Heller's Catch 22, but a re-read failed to pick it up again. And that is my reaction to a lot of this nonsense about employee engagement not being important. Crap. Okay, some people DO work for the money and only for the money. Think about those people who worked for MGM under Samuel Goldwyn, who was quoted as saying, "When I want your opinion, I will give it to you." Okay, one would not expect a whole lot of job satisfaction from THAT employer. But the numbers that these accountant guys collect clearly show that an engaged workforce is a more productive workforce and that this impacts the financials as well as things like customer retention. New customers come expensively -- take all the advertising and divide by the number of NEW customers and the numbers are pretty shocking. OLD customers are retained and leave for price and dissatisfaction. Same with New Employees. They come because there are jobs and stay because there are benefits. And the costs of training a new employee up to above average performance is pretty high, since only half could even be expected to achieve above-average performance results! So, when the good, high-performers choose to leave, the holes that need to be filled are pretty large ones. And expensive black holes for revenues... Another definition? Who cares! Those just reflect words and I never did understand the meaningful difference between Missions and Visions and THAT argument has been going on for 40 years... For me, it all boils down to one simple thought: "Nobody Ever Washes a Rental Car." If people do not share a sense of ownership, if they do not have a sense of involvement and engagement, they can be expected NOT to care about the organization and the job. Their days are numbered and the countdown has begun. The Pin will hit The Balloon, the blowup will occur, and the costs of hiring and training and all that will begin. Nothing made sense. The cost of actually engaging someone is really pretty darn low and I can describe it in three words: ASK -- ASK -- ASK (and ye shall receive!)

More old research dressed up as new research

Nicholas J Higgins CEO VaLUENTiS & Dean, ISHCM 19 Jun 2012

Sadly yet another piece of research from the CIPD/Kingston stable that is basically rewriting previous research. This stuff isn't new as it sounds very much like another take on Allen & Meyer's organisation commitment (Continuance, Normative, Affective - sometimes Normative is ignored). I'm surprised that nobody else has spotted this? It's interesting to note that the report itself makes no mention of any well-known organisation commitment papers in its references which raises a few eyebrows from an academic perspective (and it's not for the first time, either). As for the main point of this report any well designed employee engagement intervention based on surveys takes the central theme as a given. As for the Macleod report, well.......

Too much talk

liam 19 Jun 2012

It's ironic that engagement is largely driven by involvement, yet we hear a lot of talk about the subject and clearly very little action. Managers do what they're assessed by. There's nothing new in any of the research since at least 2001. My advice...less chat, more action and perhaps we'll create the sort of groundswell of activity stemming from liberated and involved employees that may just tip the recessionary balance back in the opposite direction...

NOT MORE WHAT - WHAT ABOUT THE HOW?

Lynn Hull 20 Jun 2012

I enjoyed the direct style of this article with its many truisms. And yet it is still more information about the WHAT of employee engagement and not the HOW. Several points are anomalous: no organisation can be 'lovable' -it's an inanimate entity. It's only the people who make up that organisation, regardless of station that make it lovable to another person. And are employees so helpless that they are reliant on the organisation to give them what amounts to sweeties? The research mentioned shows that it's everyone's responsibility to create a culture of engagement - employees, managers and leaders.

Engagement - understand it or abandon it

Angela Baron 22 Jun 2012

Simon Russell is exactly right when he says the last thing we need is another definition of employee engagement. Organisations have enough trouble figuring out what it is already. As he so rightly says many people can be incredibly committed to their jobs or their customers whilst also suffering extreme frustration with their employer. However is would also be a myth and a disservice to those managers struggling to manage people as productively and as well as possible in difficult time to assume that engagement can be viewed simply in single state terms. What Kingston, with support from the CIPD have been doing for the last few years is attempting to get behind the simple assumption that engagement, whatever it is, is a force for good to understand what lies beneath an engagement score, how and with what people engage. Yes we have found that the people with the most interesting jobs engage more (see the 2011 report on locus of engagement) and we are also now finding that yes there may be a dark side of over engagement which causes stress, burnout and poorer wellbeing (see the current report). When does the "good management" of involving people, getting them to broaden their responsibilities or get more involved with their work go bad when people are measured by the length of time they spend in the office or their willingness to sacrifice family life on the alter of career? Yes I agree, and in fact the report confirms that it's all too easy in today's organsiation to flip employees from emotional to transactional engagement. And who could blame them for looking for better opportunities faced with an employer who shows no commitment to them other than to extract the most effort? These are all issues we need to get to grips with if we are going to get the proven benefits in terms of performance, knowledge sharing and effectiveness that is to be had when people engage positively with their work. I for one find the world view Mr Russell paints of us all working for organisations who treat us like assets to be sweated and dumped rather than individuals to be nurtured and developed rather depressing! Fortuantely there are enough examples of successful organsiations who are getting to grips with understanding how their employees engage and using this information to manage them more effectively and improve and sustain their success to make me feel rather more optimistic.

Additional point

Justinas 06 Aug 2012

There is this great video from RSAnimate about What REALLY Motivates Us (http://www.thersa.org/events/video/animate/rsa-animate-drive) and that's it's not the many after all we all are running after. Yes, it's important to some extent. But the real business benefit comes from the employee who gives his blood, sweat and tears to the company, because he feels it's the right thing to do. My company, TalkFreely (http://www.talkfreely.com) , is directly related to this subject, since we have to face and solve that kind of problems on a daily basis :)

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