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.


Joining HR Dots… Corporate Social Responsibility and Employee Engagement


Image from sustainabilityadvantage.com

The above is the result of valuable piece of research conducted in Canada by Hewitt and Canadian Business for Social Responsibility. It looks at the link between employee engagement and employees’ perception that their employer is socially responsible.

It’s one of those relationships that makes perfect sense but is too often overlooked: The most powerful driver of employee engagement is people finding meaning in the work that they do. If an employee’s work is their cause, then of course they are going to go the extra mile to do it well!

So compelling were the above results that Hewitt have since included perceptions of CSR as an item in their engagement survey.

Hopefully this is symptomatic of a move to incorporate ideas about the social impact of an organisation in the employee engagement debate.

Both Engagement and Change

Everyone loves employee engagement. It’s not only common sense, but repeatedly demonstrated in research that employees who are engaged perform better.

CIPD finds that high employee engagement is associated with a range of positive outcomes, including better performance, more innovation and higher retention rates. The Corporate Leadership Council reports that highly engaged employees work 57% harder and are nine times less likely to leave than highly unengaged employees. They also demonstrated that engaged organizations averaged 20.1% revenue growth over three years, compared to 8.1% growth in a control population.

And yet and yet and yet… When it comes to change, the text book goes out the window and all the value is forgotten. Accenture suggest that 57% of organisations experience a downturn in productivity during change initiatives.

Why? It is well accepted that the most powerful driver for engagement is employees finding meaning in their work. Thus engagement is fundamentally linked to an organisations core purpose and values. Any change which is perceived as a challenge to this purpose is liable to have a negative impact on engagement and performance.

For employees, organisational purpose and values are manifested every day – in how co-workers are treated, in how customers are served; in the factors considered when making any decision in the orgainsation.

When re-designing a process has an impact on these surface-level manifestations, it is highly likely that the change will also impact employees’ interpretation of organisational priorities and direction. Thus, while changes to organisational structure or personnel may be conceived to impact financial metrics, they can have unforeseen knock on effects on employees’ identification with organisational purpose and thus on their engagement.

So how to do better? Again, this is where co-creation of plans, strategies and meaning becomes so valuable. Rather than planning a change in a small team, then communicating the fait-accompli to the organisation at large, invite the whole system to contribute ideas and thoughts to the change. McKinsey offer some interesting examples of large organisations looking at this already. Letting go of control like this is incredibly hard to do – especially in a traditional, large, command and control organisation. Then again, 20.1% revenue growth over three years, compared to 8.1% is a devilishly persuasive argument.