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Watch Out or Engagement May Cost You Money and Produce No Results


Last year, I posted a blog entry called “Employee engagement is what you make of it” on this site. I argued that, at a broad level, engagement is the experience of being energized and focused at work, but that engagement is one of those constructs or experiences that is organizational-dependent. The deeper meaning and experience of engagement in one organization is not necessarily the same as in another organization, largely because work experience and work-appropriate behaviors tend to differ from one organization to another.

Lots of popular press articles hold up companies – such as Best Buy, JC Penney, and Campbell Soup – as employee engagement models. For example, BusinessWeek recently did a piece on engagement focusing on all three firms. These companies have figured out what engagement means to them and how to cultivate it.

I believe that employee engagement can be a very useful leverage point for organizations (note that I said can be). However, as Wally Bock recently pointed out, employee engagement has the potential to become the greatest management fad ever, meaning that at some point it will lose favor among actual practitioners. He points to the ambiguity of the concept, the fact that people seldom are able to define the concept (except that they “know it when they see it”), and that many of the conceptualizations of engagement have little or nothing to do with actual performance.

To Wally’s observations, I’d also like to add that many of the engagement measures that consulting companies throw out there are nothing but collections of items that focus on motivation, commitment, and job satisfaction. They simply re-package them and call them engagement.

Does that mean engagement is really nothing but a management fad? I don’t think that is the case at all. Instead, more often than not, I think this may be a case of allowing irrelevant others (consultants, survey research firms, the media) to tell us what it means to be an engaged employee in our own organizations.

Rather than letting external folks tell senior leadership what it means to be engaged, senior leadership should be telling consultants what it means to be engaged in their organization. So, senior leaders and human resource folks, here are some questions to help get you started:

  1. What does it mean to be engaged in the work that is performed in my organization?
  2. When employees are truly engaged in their work, what types of experiences are they likely to have at work?
  3. When employees are truly engaged in their work, what types of behaviors will they display?
  4. How do these work experiences (#2) and behaviors (#3) result in greater performance for the employee and the organization?
  5. What kinds of initiatives can we develop to produce engagement experiences?
  6. What are characteristics of the organization that might influence the success or failure of our engagement initiatives?

Answering these six questions for your organization can help you to identify an “engagement” that works for your organization. Taking the time to truly reflect on and answer these questions will permit your organization to (1) develop a definition of engagement and (2) measure engagement in a way that is meaningful for your organization.

If you let the consultants, the research firms, and the media tell you what it means to be engaged in your organization, then you will, as Wally Bock argues, end up thinking that engagement is a “cure all” that will produce “magical results.” And for that, you may spend thousands of dollars (or more) for something that produces less than cost-effective results. On the other hand, if you take the time to focus on your own organizational definition of engagement, with a real emphasis on the actual potential link to relevant outcomes, you may end up with a leverage point for improving your organization.

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Richard (09/ 4/09) said:

Great post... It seems to me that employee engagement is now becoming better defined, and the link between people and profit is becoming clearer.
The critical question remains, how to do you create engaged employees?
There are of course many answers to that, but for me, one of the most important way to create an engaged workforce comes from the managers in your organisation. Good managers (or to be more precise, 'man'-managers) can get the best from employees, and create an environment where employees feel engaged. Poor managers create disengaged employees. Great managers and engaged employees go hand in hand... but I'm not sure that is a surprise to anybody, but still management development is underinvested in.

I am glad more people are talking about the state of engagement practice. I am not all that certain that we are getting a better picture of what we mean when we sell engagement assessments and interventions. A part of me hopes it is a fad, but another hopes it isn't. At the very least engagement as a concept shines a spotlight on the value of psychology in the workplace. With out it and the marketing power it brings to the table, I am afraid too many organizations would ignore this entirely.

I have written a bit on the topic. Here is the link for those that are interested in the discussion: http://deltaorg.wordpress.com/2009/07/01/engagement-without-committment/

Great article and a powerful complement to my own post. The money quote for me is: "I think this may be a case of allowing irrelevant others (consultants, survey research firms, the media) to tell us what it means to be an engaged employee in our own organizations."

We can work with engagement just fine if "we know it when we see it." If we need to have some survey to create a measure, it seems to me that the state-of-the-art in measuring customer satisfaction offers us some guidance. Why not use two or three simple behavioral questions as Enterprise Rental Car does in their ESQi measurement? And why not measure at the team level, where supervisors affect the engagement much more than senior management?

Thanks for a great post, Matt.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Matt Grawitch published on September 3, 2009 4:49 PM.

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