Just a rant about engagement

Dr. Jenny Gale, Senior Lecturer in HRM, Staffordshire Business School

Globally, employee engagement has been documented as low, particularly so in the UK, and we can debate about why this is so.  However, frustratingly for practitioners (and those academics who are interested), there is a distinct lack of agreement about what engagement is and isn’t, partly because it is a multi-faceted concept, incorporating attitudes and behaviours that are not easily captured within simple definitions.  Consequently, engagement has been distilled into sub-categories to reflect physical, cognitive, and emotional dimensions, along with different levels of engagement such as ‘engaged’, ‘not-engaged’ and its opposite ‘disengagement’ (see Gallup 2006).  Then it might have a lot to do with employees’ personalities, or issues around what it is that they are supposed to be engaged with (such as work tasks and organisational goals) and/or who (managers, senior managers, colleagues, customers, etc.).  You can also find lots of free articles and blogs on how to improve engagement or, if you are feeling flushed, engage a consultancy firm on a lucrative contract.  You can also learn all about the ‘myths’ of engagement – you can take your pick about how many ‘myths’ there are (three, four, five, twelve, etc.) 

Despite all this noise about engagement, it is difficult to nail down. It is frustratingly nebulous because no-one can agree what it is, although we think we know it when we see it.  We might observe how someone goes about their job – putting in extra hours, ‘going the extra mile’, engaging in ‘discretionary behaviour’, demonstrating a high level of commitment, motivation, and high levels of performance, ‘living the brand’, ‘walking the walk’, etc.  All these are supposed to mean an employee is ‘engaged’.  On the other hand, they might just be working their socks off because they are afraid of losing their job or being over-looked for promotion.

All this has implications about whether we are ‘doing engagement right’ in terms of policy and practice.  Engagement surveys, for example, are supposed to provide employers with vital information about levels of engagement and the kind of things that either promote it or prevent it.  The key point about these surveys is to act on the information in order to avoid it becoming a ‘tick-box’ exercise, frustrating employees in the process.  ACAS once stated that engagement can potentially drive business success, providing it is genuinely sought and understood, rather than just about driving the intensification of work in disguise.

Finally, there is a view that engagement is an obsession that fails to produce lasting results because employee engagement isn’t really ‘a thing’ at all but another management fad, stimulated in part by the MacLeod Review, a government commissioned study in 2009.  Personally, I’m not convinced engagement is ‘a thing’, at least not in a way that really matters.  There are positive examples of what engagement has been argued to achieve, of course.  Maplin is an interesting one – once held up as a shining example of the link between engagement and business success.  Too bad it has since disappeared from the High Street!  Was employee engagement ever really the problem? Or the answer?

I confess that the more I read about employee engagement, the more confused I get.  What I am less confused about, though, is ‘good employee relations’ and the good old- fashioned principles that underpin it – trust, fairness, integrity, transparency, equality, equity, etc.  While these principles are arguably part of the engagement discourse, the pre-occupation with ‘engagement’ as a term and what it is and isn’t distracts from what really is important.  Instead of trying to increase employee engagement, what about simplifying things and putting trust and fairness centre stage?  Trust and fairness incorporate many aspects of human decency, respect and integrity and it would be nice to see new life breathed into these words in the workplace.  Engagement?  That is much less of ‘a thing’ in my book.

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