Defining employee engagement – it’s still a struggle

For as long as I can remember, Employee Engagement has been a source of confusion in many circles.  The term itself seems to attract so many interpretations that I’ve actually questioned its usefulness for some time.

In fact, when Sue Dewhurst and I developed the Internal Communications Black Belt programme a few years ago we had a secret pact never to talk of it.

So when I picked up Employee Engagement In Theory and Practice I was reassured to read the comment that the meaning of engagement is the subject of considerable debate among academics.

The book actually goes so far as to add an additional dimension to the problem; the introduction suggests that practitioners and academics see the concept differently.  Academics see ‘engagement’ as a psychological state, practitioners see it as workforce strategy.

However, it doesn’t really matter as long as you know what you are trying to achieve.  Yet this still seems to be a challenge.

Behind all this I think are two problems.

The first is that many leaders don’t really care about engagement as an objective.  They are more in love with idea of increasing the scores and the activities which they associate with the journey.  That’s why people confuse an annual staff survey that no one cares about with a genuine attempt to build staff commitment.  We have all seen feeble communications tactics dressed up as staff engagement.  If it really matters in your organisation you’ll be interested in what really makes engagement happen.

Which brings us to the second problem.  Too much of our effort goes into gathering data and intelligence about what has been communicated or what people think and too little goes into turning that data into predictive insight.  Sometimes it is easier to point at a lovely video, website, Yammer campaign or staff incentive scheme and call it engagement than it is to understand what drives the way your workforce thinks and how you can use that insight to achieve your business goals?

For decades marketeers have used customer insight to understand how to make products more attractive and to make advertisements more impactful – all to make businesses more profitable or to change behaviours.  The tools are mostly directly transferable to understanding the workforce.  But for some reason, people in our field are slow to dig down.

So what’s a communicator to do?  Well there are a few simple steps we can all take to turn us from observers to architects of employee engagement:

  • Extract value from your annual survey – pay the extra to get a statistician to help design the questionnaire so that you can identify the underlying forces that shape engagement in your organisation
  • Be the expert in what people care about by running regular qualitative research programmes
  • Ask colleagues why they come to work, what they like about what they do at work and what they would do to make the place better
  • Buy a copy of ‘Employee Engagement In Theory and Practice’ – it might be the best investment you make!