A Deeper Engagement

By Ian J. Cook, CHRP

Engagement is a compelling concept. When individuals or teams are engrossed and excited by what they are doing, they give their best efforts and can achieve amazing results. From this observation alone, it is clear that if a whole organization could be similarly engaged, tremendous results will follow. The behaviors’ and attitudes associated with engagement make it a powerful force and an important one for HR professionals to understand in their quest to create exceptional work experiences and measurable results.

However, as compelling a concept as engagement is, the value of its application has been undermined by confused definitions, unsubstantiated assumptions, and misspent managerial efforts. There are multiple views and descriptions of how engagement is conceived. There are plenty of studies where superior results are found to co-exist with high levels of engagement; what is not clear is which leads to which. Does winning make people more engaged or does making people more engaged lead to more winning?

Moreover, the concept of engagement is not recognized in academic spheres because it has not been effectively defined. In the research journals the studies relating to this area focus on concepts such as commitment (there are three types and not all valuable), discretionary effort (which is complicated to measure) and high involvement work practices (which are broken into several component areas). In fact, the formative academic work related to engagement found no link between the concept and higher profitability, nor has any study yet proven anything more than a correlation between high engagement and superior results.

In pursuit of the promise of engagement, many organizations have spent more money and time surveying and reporting their results than they have actually making changes and responding to the insights gained. This has led directly to disengagement where employees perceive management to be more interested in surveying them, than in helping them do their jobs better.

Similarly, a confusion persists pertaining to the manageability of engagement. Many organizations have given managers accountability for the engagement score in their area. Some even going so far as to tie bonus to this number. These managers have then faced the dual challenge of generating results whilst keeping people happy or satisfied. Although these two elements are not necessarily mutually exclusive –there is no evidence that success in one will lead to success in the other. Some organizations have the performance culture, openness and managerial talent to make this work. Many do not.

As has happened repeatedly in the HR field, once the promise of a concept starts to fade a new one is found, which is touted to ‘guarantee’ the desired results. From this author’s viewpoint it appears that resiliency and trust are the current two “silver bullets” being polished up for the latest attempt at the pretender’s crown.

Fortunately, there have been those exploring the concept of engagement more deeply for the past 10 years. By digging deeper and learning from the process they are sorting the wheat from the chaff and nonsense and bringing forward a better understanding of engagement, which leads to higher value application.

We know by now that when it comes to human and organizational performance there are no silver bullets. Instead, what has emerged are a string of foundational truths that benefit any company seeking to perform at its collective best:

Engagement is individual – It is not true that what engages you will engage me. What makes teams and organizations rich and effective is diversity. We should not expect people to react in a universally positive way to anything. This requires organizations to work at enabling the relationship between supervisor and employee. We can create this capability in our supervisors and managers by increasing their skills, their judgment and the opportunities they have to uniquely support employees engagement levels.

Engagement cannot be managed –  It is not possible for a manager to make someone engaged. The manager does not control the other person’s responses, choices and reactions. While it is possible for a manager to help an individual explore and understand what makes them engaged, the manager does not control the report’s responses, choices or reaction. Collaboratively, a manager can work to create conditions and targets based on organizational goals that align closely with the individual’s engagement drivers. The ultimate choice to be engaged cannot be controlled, only influenced. This means that measurement and accountability for engagement should focus upon the individual and the manager.

Engagement is influenced by many relationships – Executive leadership decisions and processes have been shown to have a significant impact on engagement – as much if not more so than managerial relationships. It is not enough for people to feel connected to and engaged by their manager; they also must believe that the executive leadership is taking the organization in the right direction and trust that they will lead the organization to success. Any work to increase engagement should include strategies to enhance employee’s trust in senior leadership.

Engagement is about results – There is no point in creating engagement that does not align or have the potential to lead to organizational results. (Let me re-iterate that the notion that higher engagement will lead to higher results is, as yet, unproven). Roles are rarely 100% aligned to an individual’s interests and strengths and it would be irresponsible for a manager to create work or allow for a large volume of work time to be spent on things that did not move the organization towards its goals and mission. Any engagement work must be linked to tangible organizational results such as turnover, absenteeism etc.

Measurement is only 20% of the work – The allure of the engagement field is the ability to put a number to something that is correlated to organizational results. As with many new areas of organizational work finding the number has become an end in itself. However from the years of surveys and hours of meetings to talk through results it has become clear that at best the process of understanding the engagement situation in your organization is only 20% of the time and investment it takes to really bring value to your organization. When you develop your engagement plans make sure you budget for the full picture whether that is in cash or in time spent.

At a time when organizations are looking for new fresh ideas and trying to recover from the social and systemic damage caused by the recession and their responses to it, it will be tempting to throw away old concepts and seek solace in the new.

However, instead of jumping to the latest buzz this author recommends looking with new eyes at your engagement program and working in new ways to apply what has been learned from the thousands of hours and billions of dollars invested in employee engagement. Take a deeper look at what engagement means, how it works and how you can apply this to your organization. The potential rewards are worth it.

(PeopleTalk: Spring 2011)

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  1. Richard M. Tatomir March 25, 2011 at 4:15 pm · · Reply

    This is a pleasant surprise to see HR professionals talking about the importance of Engagement within the workforce. To understand this topic more comprehensively one must research the writings of Dr. Norm Amundson and Dr. Bill Borgen. The principles outlined in his book entitled Active Engagement can be extremely helpful in creating a more postive work environment for all workers and result in higher productivity.

  2. A relatively new academic journal is out and its premiere issue was devoted to Engagement and Performance.
    See this link for a view of the cover of the first issue.
    http://www.siop.org/journal/SIOP_Cover.pdf
    The website is:
    http://www.siop.org
    for more information.

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