Employee engagement: time to try another tack?

Helen Giles , 02 Aug 2013

Engagement scores

It’s now a few years since David McLeod and Nita Clarke’s ‘Engage for Success’ report came out, and they have inspired several high profile employers to promote the Engage for Success movement.

Their recent review has identified four 'enablers for engagement': strong strategic narrative, engaging managers, employee voice and organisational integrity. They point to the ever-growing body of solid evidence showing the link between engagement and higher performance and profitability.

I am absolutely signed up to all this and have seen the impact on client satisfaction rates and all other measures of performance in my own organisation. The trouble is that whenever I deliver speaking engagements and training sessions for non-HR managers on things like organisational development, leadership, performance management and culture, when I ask the audience who has heard of employee engagement, almost nobody ever has.

I recently asked 150 senior and middle managers in one organisation who could define 'employee engagement' for me and only one person could hazard a guess.

Even where HR professionals in organisations are explicitly banging the drum for engagement within their organisations, they often report that they are banging it against a brick wall as far as getting real buy-in from their senior teams is concerned.

Too often I come across HR people who still believe that engagement is something that can be done through specific initiatives and they often assume for themselves the mantle of making sure it happens. Without senior buy-in it's more of a poisoned chalice than a mantle.

As one person put it at an Engage for Success meeting I attended recently, "Engagement is not something you do, it's about how the organisation is." I totally agree with this, although I don't agree with people who claim that you can't measure engagement. You can if you don't seek to be absolutely purist about it. You simply include a handful of classic engagement indicator questions in your staff survey and average up the positive responses to these to arrive at the percentage of your employees who love the organisation and want to go the extra mile.

Since the power of engagement isn't percolating as widely and as deeply as it needs to do, if we are to boost take-up of the practices that are needed to drive it, perhaps we need to start turning the concept on its head. By focusing on engagement, we are promoting what is essentially a by-product of a well-led, well-managed and therefore high performing organisation.

Most boards and senior managers do get the concept of improving production and customer satisfaction, increasing profits and having a positive working culture without employee disputes regularly wasting everybody's time and energy. We need to start marketing the end results rather than the concept of engagement which is too intangible to persuade many people to really bite on. For example, the movement could be called 'improving organisational performance and profits'.

Then we need to be able to describe exactly what organisations need to do in order to be able to get the levels of employee buy-in and effort to achieve a high performing workplace. Engage for Success's enablers for engagement are the right four pillars. But they need to be boiled down to exactly what you need to do in order to embed them in an organisation.

It isn't rocket science. It's about the processes and accountabilities that an organisation has in place to ensure that leadership and management tasks are carried out as rigorously as sales, marketing and product development tasks. Because for many managers the former are much less congenial than any of the others, they need to be reminded again and again that this is about company performance, not employee engagement (a term which many will interpret as simply trying to make staff happy).

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. With my consultancy hat on, every time I have worked with a CEO who is genuinely committed to achieving a high performing culture and has led the embedding of back to basics good people management in their organisation, within two years they have achieved an employee engagement index of 80-95%. At no time within that have they attempted to implement anything that could be dressed up as a sparkly, award-winning 'engagement initiative'. They have simply understood that they need to improve company performance by managing the efforts of their people in a disciplined but empowering way, and their managers need to be trained and supported to do this and face consequences if they don't.

Helen Giles is HR director of Broadway Homelessness and Support and managing director of Broadway's Real People HR consultancy.

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Interesting article

Alan Berck-May 02 Aug 2013

Some really good things here. For years we have loved "new initiatives". Whilst I hate the term "back to basics" there is certainly something about getting back to managers being close to their people, catching people doing a good job and giving praise, giving and receiving feedback, listening, being around where the works done. All of this will build a positive atmosphere and build engagement.

keep going

Harris 02 Aug 2013

Some great thoughts here. The work done by McLeod and Clarke should not be wasted and let us hope HR keeps the good work they've done already with engagement

Employee Engagement: New Tack?

Skip Reynolds 06 Aug 2013

The reality in business is that what get's measured get's done and senior managers concern themselves mostly with bottom-line results through cycle-time reduction, quality initiatives, and profit margins. I see nothing in these measurable hard-skills that suggests measuring employee engagement. Not when statistics from organizations like Gallup suggest that 70% of the US work force is "unengaged." What to do? As this article suggests, when you can talk the language of senior managers and put engagement into context to the results they measure, then employee engagement would rise. It comes down to measuring the right competencies of a manager that is tied to bottom line results in a causative manner, meaning there is a direct relationship between what is measured and how work gets done that impacts bottom-line results. This is a systems approach for sure and employee engagement surely cannot be measured outside the framework of execution and profits (which is what senior managers want). To them, it really doesn't matter, or they would have solved the dilemma of employee engagement a long time ago.

Impact over index

Sheila Parry 06 Aug 2013

Couldn't agree more that the results of engagement rather than the engagement index itself make the compelling case for investment in people/team management and communication skills. Sheila Parry www.theblueballroom.com Business communications consultancy

Statistics vs pragmatism

Hugh Tonks 08 Aug 2013

I detect a curious disconnect in Helen's piece. In one passage, she can't find a definition of engagement, and several sentences later, she's measuring it to achieve something called an "employee engagement index". I would suggest that this index does not measure engagement, and indeed, that you can't measure something that you can't define. All you can do is try to measure what you believe are the precursors to engagement. And any measurement therefore must be predicated on some definition, whether accurate and relevant or otherwise. This aside, I do believe the world of HR is far too hung up on the statistics, many of which are (I claim) overhyped, of dubious value, misunderstood or just misused. If you really want to get back to basics, then stop focussing on measuring engagement, and start engaging with your staff. Employees become disengaged one at a time, for their own reasons. No grand re-engagement programme is going to work; it is absolutely essential to address engagement issues on an ad hominem basis, for nothing works as well as making people feel that they are being listened to and that their concerns are not belittled.

It's communication that really matters

Kevin Ruck 08 Aug 2013

One reason why engagement has got stuck is that internal communication is not prioritised as much as it should be. If you asked 150 managers about internal communication, it would get much more attention. And internal communication is an antecedent for engagement. Keep employees informed and give them a say in what goes on and then watch engagement rise! Kevin www.exploringinternalcommunication.com

There is no other tack

Graham Frost 15 Aug 2013

I have never known an employee engagement 'initiative' work unless it has been backed by the people at the very top of an organisation. If your CEDO doesn't see the value of engagement, you are wasting your time. My experience of being an engaged employee was actually led by a visionary CEO in the 1990's who saw that the Service Profit Chain depended on the employees at the front line and everywhere else in the business being engaged and all working towards a simple goal. It worked, and it was the best place I have ever worked - we managed to keep the momentum going for about five years and then the bean counters from the parent company took over. Initiatives that are just based in the HR department won't work, you can't do this sort of thing under the radar. Sorry!

Why Don't They Get It?

Mark Wayland 09 Sep 2013

Want to improve Engagement scores? Start treating people as valued humans. Then treat them as valued employees. Most companies do it the other way around and that's why engagement scores haven't changed.

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