Employee Engagement – Still talking about the same thing, right?


An obscure “Blade of Glory” quote popularised recently by Jay-Z and Kanye But while Chazz Michael Michaels was talking about “lady humps” the same conversation might just make sense in the context of employee engagement.

As a concept, engagement has its roots in the work of Iban Mayo and the human relations movement. Contrary to the prevailing scientific management wisdom at the time, Mayo stumbled upon the somewhat obvious fact that merely treating employees like humans (with a gesture as small as adjusting the lighting in the workplace) can have a significant impact on productivity.

The concept has evolved over time, with notable input from survey based interventions and organisations like Gallup. But while the numerical focus has undoubtedly helped the idea to mature and guided organisations toward specific interventions, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real meaning of engagement has got lost in its practical application. Just about every employee will recognise the phrase, but try asking for a definition and see what you get. Provocative? Gets the people going?

Most research into the topic comes to the firm conclusion that the biggest driver of “engagement” is employees finding meaning in their work. This can be traced through:

  • Organisations having a greater purpose and vision,
  • Employees connecting with this purpose,
  • Understanding how their personal job contributes to this larger purpose
  • And having the tools, resource and mandate to complete their job effectively.

This is all very sensible. The difficulty when it comes to practice, however, is that organisations tend to focus on “quick wins” and easily measurable improvement plans – because we all know “what gets measured, gets managed”.

Many organisations focus on the bottom two points, with the result that to many, employee engagement has become a confusing mish-mash of making sure everyone has a pen, letting people wear jeans on a Friday and holding strictly scheduled briefings, where a corporate powerpoint presentation is recited to uninterested employees.

So what would focusing on a purpose and an individual employee’s relationship with that purpose look like? Here are three thoughts:

Define the organisations larger purpose (beyond enriching shareholders)

There are plenty of good examples, including Unilever, Melotte and Puma. Wal-Mart, suffering some particularly bad press in 2005, made an extra effort in its response to Hurricane Katrina. In the process, CEO Lee Scott noticed a massive increase in employee engagement. Attributing the increased engagement to a sense of purpose, and deciding he wanted a work force as enthusiastic as that all the time, he decided to do some thinking around Wal-Mart’s larger purpose. Scott set a target in 2005 to produce zero waste, have an energy supply that is 100% renewable and only produce products that sustain our environment and resources. This has been Wal-Mart’s sustainability mantra ever since.

Give employees the opportunity to create their own meaning around that purpose – and encourage two way dialogue

To make their sustainability mantra meaningful for their 1.3 million employees, Wal-Mart created a tool called My Sustainability Plan. This allowed employees to take the concept of sustainability and create meaning for the idea that was relevant for them. Regarding two way dialogue, Brighter Planet have produced research suggesting organisations where employees are able to make suggestions are six times as likely to have a very effective engagement programme.

Enable all employees to contribute to the larger purpose – and not just in a token way

Beyond personal sustainability plans, Wal-mart have used their Sustainability goals to re-invigorate their lean six sigma thinking. Engaging entire teams in sessions to re-design packaging and reduce waste has led to dozens of implemented ideas and millions of dollars saved.

Organisations looking for that magic bullet of discretionary effort, productivity and on-fire-employees would do well to look at their role in society and how their employees are able to engage with that. I don’t know about you, but more than having pens, or dress down Friday, I find that provocative. It gets me going.


The Twenty First Century Organisation

I was introduced to the Business as an Agent of World Benefit project yesterday. Rather than follow the current discourse of bashing capitalism and corporations for the damage they do to the world, the project takes a refreshing approach and inquires into how business can act as an agent for positive change in the world, while also sustaining its own profitability.

Sounds crazy – I know, but step back for a second and think about how much sense it makes. Big corporations are usually full of intelligent people; and intelligent people know that destroying the environment and squeezing an ever increasing proportion of the population into relative poverty is not a strategy for sustainable growth – or even survival. Moreover, who is better placed to make a difference on an issue like climate change than a company with the brightest engineers, billions of dollars to back them, and the selfish motive of healthy profits if they succeed?

David Cooperrider has outlined the three characteristics of model organisations he sees for the twenty first century:

  • Organisations provide a domain for the elevation of strengths – they provide the processes, tools, and mission for individuals to realise and grow their own strengths;
  • They enable the concentration of strengths – connecting different strengths in what Ken Gergen calls “an ever-expanding domain of relatedness”. Cooperrider argues there is a multiplier effect to connecting diverse strengths, and organisation offer a platform for more and more strengths to be connected with increasing potential and novel results;
  • Organisations should refract strengths outward into society. In a dawning age of collaboration, knowledge has no owner and the days of hoarding intellectual property are coming to an end. The twenty first century organisation will pride itself on sharing its ideas and designs in a collaborative way, acting as a lightening rod for further innovation.

Sound far fetched? It might be closer than you think. Melotte, a Belgian manufacturing firm is making waves with its digital 3D printing technology. Led by Mario Fleurinck, the company is using cutting-edge technology to rapidly scale down costs of manufacturing. The result is an eightfold decrease in carbon emissions (numbers to impress any environmentalist) and a revenue growth of 20% per quarter (something for the businessman too). Rather than pursuing a classic balanced scorecard however, Melotte has defined a new set of metrics. These not only highlight the root causes of the company’s success, but provide a framework for the company’s continued growth to benefit society in a much larger way.

Ilja Heitlager, Information Officer at Schuberg Philis told of an inquiry into what drove his company’s success. It led to the IT provider bucking the trend and doing away with a generalist call centre, in favour of employees building deep knowledge of the systems of a small number of clients. Giarte, an Outsourcing survey provider has found Schubert Philis to have the highest customer satisfaction rating in the Netherlands for the last six years, with an incredible 100% of clients saying they would recommend the company to others. By connecting the knowledge within the organisation Schuberg Philis came up with a model that made redundant the challenges they faced previously. Interestingly, the same approach to change has led them to agree a mission to build an organisation that, rather than focusing on shareholder value, “will make their children proud”.

Diana Whitney earlier suggested that “Appreciative Inquiry draws people who’s values are in-congruent with the old methods”. If Schuberg Philis’ and Melotte’s financial results are anything to go by, we may see a lot more organisations discovering the power of a new set of values. Welcome to the 21st century!