Is engagement fact or fiction?

Few seem able to agree on what engagement is or how to measure it. Some argue that it never existed at all and was nothing more than the latest fad

“Is this really engagement? I think it should be in the L&D category.” So came the feedback around the table at the recent HR Excellence Awards 2019 judging day in response to one organisation’s submission in the Outstanding employee engagement strategy category.

It was a similar story for another entry: “This isn’t really engagement. It’s a pulled-together list of initiatives that could have helped engage employees and have then been called employee engagement after.”

This isn’t to say that the award entries were poor quality, or that none fitted our judges’ definition of ‘true engagement’. And many showcased remarkable work.

It’s just that this work wasn’t always necessarily what others deemed ‘engagement’.

This confusion isn’t isolated to the awards circuit alone. Ask a collection of HRDs about their employee engagement strategies and descriptions will cover everything from wellbeing to rewards structures, from new HR technology implementation to L&D.

Which raises questions about what this mythical creature employee engagement actually is. Is it all of the above? Or something else entirely? And is HR blindly pursuing something it doesn’t fully understand? Or that doesn’t even exist?

An elusive beast

It’s this latter radical verdict that Rob Briner, professor of organisational psychology at Queen Mary University of London, ascribes to. “There is no ‘it’. Engagement just isn’t a thing,” he says. “I’ve been looking at it for at least 10 years and I have absolutely no idea what it means. I’ve sat in meetings with people discussing engagement scores and said ‘what does it mean’ and they don’t know.”

He points to how the concept first came into being. It was 1990 when William A Kahn first coined the phrase ‘employee engagement’ in an article in the Academy of Management Journal. Over the course of the decade employee engagement surveys started appearing, with the likes of Gallup pioneering the concept.

But most would agree that the movement really took off after David MacLeod, co-chair of the Employee Engagement Task Force and co-author of the MacLeod Report, and co-author Nita Clarke published their government-commissioned Engaging for Success report in 2009 and set up the Engage for Success Task Force. Today it’s the HR teams without a dedicated engagement strategy and annual engagement survey in the minority.

“Engagement was a useful political tool for the CIPD and Engage for Success that said we need to treat workers properly and the reason we need to do that is because the UK lags behind with personal productivity,” says Briner.

“I don’t think it means anything on its own. It’s just what HR was looking for at the time,” agrees Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester.

“The Engage for Success movement said that we needed more involvement by employees in decision-making and needed them to feel more part of the culture – that then led to metrics and measuring it and organisations doing annual engagement surveys. So what that’s morphed into is people saying engagement is the magic bullet that’s going to solve all of HR’s problems – and lo and behold it hasn’t,” Cooper adds.

While some see it as an umbrella term for a range of HR activity, Briner believes this is part of the problem. “You can say benefits is engagement or employee experience is engagement or performance management is engagement, so everything is engagement. And as people say: if something means everything it means nothing.”

This is the “strategic ambiguity” of the term, notes Briner, explaining that such woolliness allows HR to use engagement as an important-sounding tool to show the business it is doing something valuable.

“People ­– whether consciously or unconsciously – try to keep things ambiguous as there’s strategic value in doing so,” he says. “Life is a bit easier if we don’t bother [defining it] and that’s why you get people putting everything under that umbrella as it’s strategically useful. So again and again you get HR trying to avoid being precise and clear; it feels sometimes all these words and concepts being thrown around are like a defence.”

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No magic bullet

Others, however, wouldn’t go as far as to say engagement doesn’t exist. Just that too much emphasis has been placed on it as a fix-all and – crucially – not enough attention given to what people mean when using the term.

“It’s confusing,” says Cooper, regarding the many different, sometimes conflicting, definitions out there. “People are using all of these phrases and think they mean the same thing, but they don’t.”

A huge part of the problem, explains Dilys Robinson, principal associate of the Institute for Employment Studies and the organisation’s research lead for employee engagement, is that people conflate the tools that help achieve engagement – wellbeing and rewards strategies for example – with the concept itself. “These are the tools to achieve engagement, but are not in themselves employee engagement. They can just contribute towards employees feeling positive towards the organisation and feeling more engaged,” she says.

MacLeod asserts that employee engagement is in fact the “umbrella term” under which all these different parts of good HR fall. “All those things play into good job quality, good work – that is good pay, job design, wellbeing, social support and so on – and create the conditions in which people are engaged,” he says. “So employee engagement joins up all these various terms.”

Cooper sees this differently again, however. Instead of engagement being the umbrella concept he argues it’s just one small aspect – together with line manager EQ, flexible working and good work/life balance – of the more critical overarching focus of “good work or a wellbeing culture…” Which is “way beyond employee engagement”, he says.

HR has spent too long focusing on the wrong thing, explains Cooper: “That’s why mental ill health has flourished, because HR has relied too heavily on just that one metric and it’s not the magic bullet that will increase productivity per capita or reduce stress-related illnesses. We haven’t seen the bottom line affected by just dealing with employee engagement so we need to go further.”

Rita Trehan, former CHRO at Honeywell and founder of Dare Worldwide, agrees that engagement has detracted focus away from arguably more important HR disciplines.

“Employee engagement was coined as a way to motivate people to come to work and do their best. But the reality is that this is only one layer of what is important to people. Companies need to get deeper and look at the culture as it’s culture that’s important,” she says. “Engagement is just part of the culture, it’s not the full culture.”

Even if engagement does exist, says Briner, it should be lower on HR’s agenda than it commonly is.

“If you take job satisfaction as a close proxy – which I think it is for many practitioners – the evidence linking job satisfaction and performance shows at best quite weak links,” he says. “If you work in HR and are concerned with performance, imagine a list of things that might affect performance and I’d put satisfaction and engagement very low on that list.”

Of critical importance

For many, however, the concept is only getting more critical in today’s working climate. Engage for Success’ MacLeod points to corporate governance scandals, sexual harassment and, crucially, Brexit.

“When things go wrong people look at culture not just processes and so on – we’re now about to leave the world’s biggest market so we’re going to need engaged employees. The level of speed and change in the market and new competition, customers getting more demanding… the younger generation having growing expectations… we’ve got to do something outstanding now.”

“Budgets continue to be squeezed all the time and in uncertain times people are realising engagement can be the glue holding it all together,” agrees Helen Mitchell, head of internal communications and engagement at Alzheimer’s Society.

HRD of Kerry Foods Emma Rose says she has seen engagement mean the difference between a company’s survival or demise, citing her time as HRD of commercial at Cadbury during the UK firm’s takeover by US conglomerate Kraft.

“Like in the integration of Cadbury and Kraft where people’s confidence and trust in the total organisation is affected, if their experience of coming to work day to day is good you can retain people long enough to rebuild their trust – if it’s the other way around you lose people very quickly,” she says.

Indeed Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), called for a renewed focus on engagement in his review into modern working practices. “Part of it is that having a tight labour market has allowed us to think more concertedly about the quality of work,” he explains.

“Part of it is there’s this productivity issue… and finally there’s a disjunction between what we say about citizens in civil society – that they should be listened to and have control – but somehow that idea of empowerment, respect and voice isn’t carried into the workplace.”

So reaching an agreed definition, or at least HR practitioners being sure of what ‘engagement’ means to them and their organisations, is only getting potentially more important. The problem is that final indisputable definitions are hard – nigh impossible – to come by. “If you’re looking for a perfect definition of employee engagement it’s a bit like looking for the Holy Grail – you’ll never find it,” says Jo Moffatt, strategy director at Engage for Success and MD of Woodreed.

“There’s more than 60 different definitions and no universally-accepted definition of what it means,” says Amy Armstrong, senior faculty at Ashridge at Hult International Business School. “It’s something that has been looked at in organisations since the late ‘90s and there’s been more than 2,000 studies in it but each study has looked at something slightly different.”

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To survey or not to survey

And yet the idea of reaching a standard definition has garnered particular attention of late in relation to the humble annual engagement survey and Taylor calling for the major survey companies to come together to establish a standard or benchmark.

“If they collaborate they could establish a standard for good robust surveys – there would still be room for diversity within that standard,” he says. “And there’s an enormous amount of data out there that isn’t being pulled together effectively, which if we could combine and mash up we could get a really vivid picture of where we are and the underlying trends.”

This would counteract a situation in which today there are hundreds of different survey providers all offering organisations varying ways to measure how engaged their workforces are. For instance, a score of 50 could be phenomenal on one scale and dire on another, meaning that even where a definition is upheld there’s still confusion over the data’s reliability.

Recent Ashridge research compared what organisations described as their highly engaged teams – based on consistent high engagement scores – and their disengaged teams – based on consistent low scores – and found that 29% of those deemed highly engaged were actually satisfied, not engaged.

“Organisations have been heavily reliant on engagement surveys as the ‘answer’. But we found that they’re not showing a true picture of engagement,” says Armstrong.

Others point to the difficulty of ever measuring engagement in a truly concrete tangible way. “For me it’s around the connection an employee has with the employer and what that means to one person is different to what that means for another. How can you define and measure an emotional connection between two parties?” says Liz Jeffery, VP HR at Sony Music Entertainment.

“It’s a soft issue so it will never be defined like financial things can be defined,” concedes MacLeod. “But it doesn’t mean it’s not important.”

“I’m not sure you can really make sure what you’re measuring gives an accurate picture of engagement,” muses internal communications and engagement manager of Medway Council Sandra Steel. “It’s not a tangible subject where you can give an accurate measure, so it’s more an overall general look.”

Such sentiments have played a key role in the move among many organisations in recent years, away from using – or only using – the traditional annual engagement survey.

Take MTR Crossrail. “Intangible” measures like the culture and feeling of the organisation can be “tell-tale signs” of engagement, says HRD Alison Bell. From a quantitative perspective the organisation is introducing more frequent pulse surveys: “Because of the position we’re in as a business with the delay to the Crossrail programme and opening of the line, engagement is really important to us and can change very quickly.”

Sony Music Entertainment has gone further, dispensing with any type of engagement survey altogether. If an organisation has genuinely engaged its workforce it shouldn’t need a survey or score to tell them this, says Jeffrey.

“My team are never at their desks as we’re all just out having conversations with the business,” she says. “You get far richer feedback from having a conversation with people than I think a survey ever delivers”.

The process of an engagement survey itself can drive the very opposite impact to that intended, Jeffery warns. “People don’t want to fill out surveys so why force our people to do something we all know is annoying?” she says. “Most people want to talk so give them a platform to do it in a meaningful way.”

Dan Cable, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, recounts working with another firm that realised this. “The leader said ‘if you have to measure engagement then you probably don’t have it’. I think he was joking but my response was ‘that’s more honest than you know as when you measure something sometimes you kill it’,” he says.

Another language

And it’s not just the engagement survey that runs the risk of HR alienating employees, managers and leaders alike from the concept – or even disengaging them. HR’s whole approach to the discipline has had this effect in some quarters over the years.

“Sometimes there’s an overemphasis on the word engagement and that’s when people start to get a bit exhausted by it,” feels Mitchell. “We don’t want [employees] to get fatigued by constant messages and questions so there should be a timetable for engagement activity,” adds Steel.

Language is important. While HR’s understanding and use of the concept may well be sound, the term ‘employee engagement’ might not be the most user-friendly externally with the rest of the business, points out Steel. When HR speaks of engagement to the business, “a lot of managers think ‘oh god, another HR fad’,” she says. “So when I speak to managers about employee engagement I cut out the word ‘engagement’ and change it to communication and involvement.

“I like to cut out all the smoke and mirrors and drill down into what it really is… That’s how

I personally sell it to the business and often see a lot of nods when I say those words – people understand what I’m talking about.”

The term can have ‘us and them’ connotations for employees themselves, feels Armstrong. “The words ‘employee engagement’ are unhelpful as they suggest a separation between leaders or HR and the rest of the organisation… Even if we took ‘employee’ out of it and just talked about collective engagement it would be better.”

And constantly using the phrase with employees can be one dangerous factor in creating over-engagement. More HR professionals need to be mindful of how over-engagement is just as damaging as under-engagement, warns Cable. “It can be dangerous to bring your heart to work and align your identity with the firm if they’re going to then fire you,” he says.

He points to the need for a post-modern humanistic approach: “Instead of putting the corporation first it should start with the human. Where engagement is seen as the best course it’s because it’s through a corporate management lens. But is it fair for people to put their whole selves into a firm that doesn’t think about them first?”

An evolving thing

HR practitioners and thinkers could also do with fixating a bit less on the word ‘engagement’ among themselves, according to some. Too much attention on getting one collectively-approved and universally-applicable definition right is unhelpful, feels Moffatt. “In my view we spend too much time debating the terminology. If we put as much effort into doing the right things in organisations as we do debating it to the nth degree and ending up in arguments on LinkedIn about whether it’s experience or engagement, we’d be further forward,” she says.

After all the ways and means of successfully engaging employees will vary dramatically across organisations, points out Robinson. “It’s a tricky one as there’s lots of different things organisations can do that might increase or decrease engagement levels and there isn’t one magic bullet. So if you’ve ever got companies saying ‘this is the answer’ you need to be very suspicious,” she says. “There’s a lot of noise in the system.”

“There’s no right or wrong answer as what works for one industry and business might not work for another,” adds Bell.

The same is true of the engagement survey, feels Moffatt. “As long as you choose a framework that works for your business then you can measure and monitor and benchmark,” she says, citing crime clear-up as a key metric for the Metropolitan Police and the NHS’ Friends and Family Test (the feedback tool for people using NHS services) as examples.

Most important, says Rose, is to stay mindful of all the various ways of defining and measuring engagement. And to realise this will be ever-changing for any organisation – and as such require tireless attention and hard work.

“Engagement is really fragile,” she says. “You can never get it totally right so you have to work on it all the time.”

Steel agrees: “The job is never finished – I don’t think with employee engagement you get to an engaged state. It’s an evolving thing.”

The employee engagement fad: What next?

“I think we’ve hit peak engagement,” says Briner. “More people are saying they don’t do engagement now or realise they’ve made a mistake.

“Employee engagement isn’t the first all-purpose, all-singing, all-dancing, umbrella term to come along to HR,” he adds. “The question is, if we’ve hit peak engagement, what’s coming next?”

Briner’s educated guess is: employee experience. He points to research he’s conducted using Google Trends. “If you put ‘job satisfaction’ in as a term and ‘employee engagement’ in as a term, what you see is the number of searches for and appearances of job satisfaction on the internet has gone down and employee engagement has gone up, suggesting there’s been a kind of replacement,” he says. “So have we just replaced job satisfaction with another term?

“And I predict this is happening with employee experience – there’ll be a point where it goes up and employee engagement goes down.”

Moffatt agrees that employee experience could be the new kid on the block. “There’s a real risk of what we’re going to call it next when really there’s nothing new under the Sun,” she says. “We’re simply trying to come up with the next term to put appropriate tags on articles so they rise up the Google search.”

Which, in Briner’s eyes, takes us back to the same problem engagement faces: “[Employee experience] is a new fad cycle; people want something new and they’ve tried the engagement thing and haven’t found it useful.”

So the answer to ‘what next for employee engagement?’ Employee experience. But this will need to be treated with equal care and caution.

This piece appeared in the June 2019 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk