For the past 15 years, employee engagement has dominated the internal communication agenda. But even its biggest advocates, like the U.K.’s Engage for Success, admit there is a long way to go in achieving what it considers a desirable degree of “engagement.” (Gallup, which claims its Q12 survey is the definitive tool for measuring engagement, also claims that only 13% of workers are “engaged” by its definition.)
Many leading lights in the communication and culture world focus on promoting a particular definition of engagement. I see two other areas of opportunity: to look closely at whether alignment between corporate, employee and HR definitions of engagement is also a factor in creating engagement, and to consider whether engagement activities should be focused more selectively.
Dan Gray, a U.K.-based brand, marketing and communication professional with extensive experience in engagement-oriented projects, identifies a number of categories of engagement definitions on his blog:
- For some, engagement is nothing more than a sexy new wrapper for the same old activities —a slightly more outcomes-focused badge for internal communication.
- For some it’s a process—the alignment of the organization’s vision, strategy and goals with those of the individuals who make it up.
- For some it’s a philosophy—a synonym for “involvement” and the desire to bring greater democracy to decision-making in organizations.
- For others still, it’s pure outcome—an individual psychological state, effectively the sum total of one’s gut feelings about one’s relationship with an organization.
I would add two additional categories:
- An output—the surplus “discretionary” effort employees contribute beyond what normal pay and contract terms would generally warrant.
- A number, reflecting the outcome of surveys like those from Gallup and Kenexa, which specify a combination of attitudes, behaviors and actions for measurement and for benchmarking against other firms.
To me, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these definitions. The challenge is whether employees and organizations are agreed on a given definition.
A definition from James Shaffer, IABC Fellow, a consultant and writer, provides a useful starting point: “Employee engagement is a condition that occurs when employees share the values and purpose of the organization and are willing to ‘do whatever it takes’ to help the organization succeed.”
The need for shared definitions
Shaffer’s definition may seem one-way, but I believe it reflects a crucial sub-condition: that the employee and the organization are on the same page—that they are engaging on shared terms and shared understanding.
But inconsistent understanding of an organization’s purpose and values can be exacerbated by the use of inconsistent definitions of employee engagement. Organizations that seek surplus discretionary effort (“going the extra mile”) by talking up employees’ ability to make meaningful contributions face cynicism when employees find their input falls on deaf ears. Organizations that define engagement as the ability to retain talent long-term face challenges if layoffs occur and the rationale for it isn’t contextualized appropriately. Organizations that define engagement in terms of survey scores can drive misaligned behaviors when their surveys are focused on international norms set by studies like Gallup’s Q12, rather than on whether employees understand objectives and feel empowered to deliver in a specific context.
Dan Gray in particular sees a number-focused approach as a driver of misalignment. As he writes on his blog: “An entire industry has been spawned by the false premise that engagement is a universal ‘thing’ that can be objectively and quantitatively measured—no concessions to business context or cultural differences; nor to the fact that, while there is an obvious correlation between well-motivated people and corporate performance, the relationship is far from being a directly causative one.”
Regardless of what an organization’s engagement definition is, expectations, processes and desired outcomes need to reflect that definition. They also need to be consistent with the organization’s mission, values and objectives. Inconsistency breeds disengagement. And consistency breeds advocacy, as demonstrated by the increasing adoption of measures like the Employee Net Promoter Score, which measure the willingness of employees to recommend their company as an employer.
According to Gallup, you only need to ask 12 questions to assess the level of employee engagement in your company, no matter what your company’s values and objectives are.
Target your engagement efforts
While consistent understanding of what engagement means is key to achieving successful engagement outcomes and processes, it also makes sense to focus the greatest amount of energy where it will have the greatest impact.
“Much of the mind-set in the employee engagement world involves a focus on ‘engaging all employees,’” said Jeppe Vilstrup Hansgaard of Copenhagen’s Innovisor consultancy, which specializes in social network analysis. “And you can get really punished by the benchmarked surveys if you don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach
“You have to remember that employees in the knowledge society engage more with each other than with their managers. It is not just a two-way relationship between employee and employer. An added bonus is that less than 5% of the employees who are most influential and trusted drive conversations with 80% of the other employees in the organization.”
Recognizing that some employees (many of them not managers) have a disproportionate impact on performance and engagement, is another factor that raises questions about whether traditional approaches to increasing and measuring engagement are worth the cost.
James Shaffer provides a real-world example of focusing engagement effort where it makes the most sense: “A call center has a 300 percent turnover rate. Turnover adds costs and affects quality and service. Question: How much should the company invest in reducing turnover through increased engagement? Answer: Engagement investments should be made until the engagement investments no longer pay off. It might be far less expensive to reduce the first 75 percent of call center turnover than it is to reduce the last 25 percent. Reducing all 300 percent might sound like a good idea but it’s a lousy idea if you end up throwing money at something that doesn’t produce a return. As I said, this is not a fluffy subject. This is a business subject.”