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Don't mention engagement

Why 'employee engagement' can actually lead to true disengagement

'Employee engagement' is an American term that has been reluctantly but gradually adopted by British HR practitioners and business leaders alike. Now it is part of our daily business vocabulary.

The problem with this is that business leaders must not forget that 'employee engagement' is still an alien and unwelcome term among workers. In the context of management strategy or organisational policy it has the ring of manipulation about it.

Employees don’t want to feel they are part of an engagement programme contriving to ensure they are more committed to the company and, consequently, will be more productive or give more of their time for free. It smacks of exploitation.

Organisations must therefore be sensitive to employee reactions to any corporate communication that mentions the 'E word' and engagement tactics. In the worst case scenario, these communications create cynicism and true disengagement.

In my experience, companies that discuss engagement tactics are often looking for quick-fix solutions on the engagement bandwagon. They may not be sincere in pursuing these, and are often merely on a tick-box exercise.

If companies want to secure genuine increases in employee motivation, the change needs to come from the top – with care and conviction, and with a commitment to understanding and satisfying staff needs.

It requires a sincere interest in people, as employees respond positively to genuine encouragement, respect and interest in the contribution they are making. It requires a more humanist approach to leadership, moving from a controlling, instruction-led mindset to a more open and dynamic one that encourages and trusts workers to take responsibility and ownership.

Organisations that most successfully motivate their workforce have learnt to:

  • Facilitate informal employee networks
  • Encourage collaboration and cross-fertilisation of ideas between teams
  • Develop trust, allowing experimentation and tolerating mistakes
  • Distribute responsibility, decision-making and control, and voluntary leadership
  • Provide support from the most senior levels of management

Engagement is not something that should be openly pursued with employees for the sake of it. Staff want to know how companies can support them in giving a better service to customers, and how they will appreciate their efforts with positive affirmation, reward and career progression.

It’s not rocket science. But so many organisations seem to be missing the mark.

Vlatka Hlupic is professor of business and management at the University of Westminster, a management consultant and executive coach, and author of The Management Shift