Guest Articles

Employee Engagement – “the great hoax” or a great, misunderstood idea?

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The world seems to be full of ‘engagement’ experts, all focused on the types of things we can put in place in the organisation, from better surveys, or how to use Yammer, to the art of story-telling.  A Forbes article this summer – “The engagement racket: a hoax of immense proportions” – challenges that engagement is little more than a “check a box, once a year”, feedback exercise allowing a tone-deaf HR leader say to her leadership team, “Look how high our engagement scores are this year! Surely I’m doing my job!”.

Much of what is sold as engagement seems very traditional in approach – in being top-down and focused on the business benefit of high performance and “discretionary effort”. All of this ignores that this is as much about the individuals, and their day-to-day human needs, desires and experiences as it is about organisational initiatives and systems.

It is worth stepping back to look at the compelling evidence of truly engaging organisations and academic research. This points to engagement as a psychological state where individuals are dedicated to the organisation and their work, absorbed in their day-to-day activities, and have emotional, physical and mental vigour, or energy to apply to their work. This leads to happier, healthier employees, improved job performance and, in turn, to a direct impact on business goals and performance.

The father of employee engagement, William Kahn, identified the three psychological needs that must be met to help employees feel more engaged:

1. Psychological meaningfulness: Employees often seek meaning or purpose in their work, from doing something that meets their own values, through to making a difference to others or society. Organisations need to provide roles that are clearly aligned to a productive purpose so that individuals can see what they are contributing to.  When people are treated with dignity, respect and are valued for their contributions, they get a greater sense of meaningfulness – when done well, investment in team building and culture is invaluable.

2. Psychological safety: Employees need to trust they can show their true selves and thoughts without fear of negative consequences and organisations need to foster this trust and collaboration between employees and their colleagues, line managers and the wider leadership of the company. This is most influenced by group dynamics, leadership styles and colleague behaviour, and highlights the importance of creating the right culture and leadership capabilities in a business.

This issue of psychological safety is also key to creating social capital in an organisation – where collaboration replaces destructive competition for the benefit of all, and of the business.

3. Psychological availability: Employees need to feel they have the physical, emotional and mental resources available to commit themselves to work. Employees who are over-worked, run down, physically and mentally tired, and who are continually experiencing challenging emotional situations without resources or coping mechanism to deal with them, will be far from engaged. At best, health and wellbeing at work is treated as part of health & safety, but it is also often treated as a tickbox exercise or “HR initiative”. But a healthy, fully available employee is also vital for engagement and performance.

Engagement is a meaningful and important goal for organisations, in terms of both human, and business, impact.  But for most businesses, it will take a more substantial shift in behaviour than the tinkering with surveys and digital technology that often goes by the name of engagement.


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