· 3 min read · Features

Not another definition of employee 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