Here’s the Best Definition of Employee Engagement You’ll Ever See Anywhere

© Yuri Arcurs -
© Yuri Arcurs -

I don’t usually read things that jump out and grab me, but an article in Sunday’s New York Times did, because it had probably the best definition of employee engagement that you’ll ever see, anywhere.

It was in the Corner Office column, which is a weekly business Q&A with an executive they get to chat about what it is like to be a leader, and they also usually talk in some depth about their larger management philosophy. This week’s interview was with Jim Whitehurst, the president and CEO of Red Hat, the provider of Linux and other open-source technology, and to be honest, I wasn’t expecting any jump-up-and-grab-you management wisdom from him.

But then Whitehurst started to discuss leadership and getting employees to REALLY embrace the company’s goals and how much more you can accomplish when they do that. Here’s what he said that surprised me:

Somebody once told me — and this is some of the best advice I ever got — that for any business there are three levels of leadership. One is getting somebody to do what you want them to do. The second is getting people to think what you want them to think; then you don’t have to tell them what to do because they will figure it out.

But the best is getting people to believe what you want them to believe, and if people really fundamentally believe what you want them to believe, they will walk through walls. They will do anything. People certainly know what to think at Red Hat. We also believe in our open, transparent culture, and so everybody knows why we’re doing what we’re doing. So they will go around obstacles because they’ve bought in.”

Getting people to “walk through walls for you”

Ding! Yes, employee engagement IS the art of “getting people to believe what you want them to believe.” And Whitehurst is 100 percent right that when (if) you can do that with your staff, “they will walk through walls for you.”

Unfortunately, far too many in executive leadership do things the opposite way. That is, they engage in workforce practices that tear down the bond between workers and the organization, and that make the staff wonder, “why should I trust these guys?” I used to work for a company that engaged in some of these practices during the low point of the Great Recession, and the worst thing about it is that much of it came directly from the CEO.

So, that’s why Jim Whitehurst’s management philosophy is so refreshingly simple. Yes, it IS all about “getting people to believe what you want them to believe,” and although it is hardly simple to make that happen, if you can, you’ll find that you have a workforce that will do just about anything to help you move the organization ahead. And THAT’s what employee engagement is all about.

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The importance of letting employee debate happen

But there’s more to this Q&A from Red Hat’s Jim Whitehurst than just a great definition of employee engagement. Here’s a little bit more of what he said about getting employee buy-in:

We let debate happen, and you let it kind of burn its way out, with people offering their opinions on both sides of an issue. And then you say: “We’ve listened to all of this. We’ve taken it into consideration and here’s what we’re going to do.” Even the most ardent people opposing whatever decision is ultimately made will at least think: “I had my say. You heard me, and you told me why you made the decision.” It does not have to be a democracy. And this has been true at Red Hat since long before I got there.

Our employees have always expected this: tell me why we’re doing what we’re doing, and allow me at least a voice in the decision process. Now a voice doesn’t mean decision rights. It doesn’t mean you have any say in the answer. But at least you have a vehicle for an opinion to be heard.

A lot of the issues that many companies are now facing is that they think, “I can’t let my employees have a seat at the table in this.” But it’s not about having a seat at the table for the decision. It’s about having a seat at the table to voice their opinions and make sure those opinions are heard.

As long as our employees are involved they will accept virtually any decision. They may say, “We don’t like it, and we still don’t agree with that.” But you listen and you come back with a well-reasoned answer. And that is the expectation that our employees have. I think almost every company is going to have to deal with this over the next 20 years.”

This is really interesting stuff, because like a salmon swimming upstream, it runs against the thinking of so many managers and executives in so many companies. Letting employees have a seat at a table to voice their opinions and make sure they are being heard? I know far too many executives who would rather surrender their perks and stock options than let that happen.

Yes, Jim Whitehurst has some really interesting things to say about management and leading people. It’s cutting edge and forward thinking, and that’s transformational talent management if I ever saw it. Take a read and see if you don’t think so, too.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


12 Comments on “Here’s the Best Definition of Employee Engagement You’ll Ever See Anywhere

  1. I agree solidly with John’s comments.  Its consistent with my blog from last week.
    My consulting takes me to every sector and the differnces in employee commitment are night and day. 
    I teach HR courses occasionally and ask the students to develop a paper on the old movie, Apollo 13.  It’s the best picture of a high performance organization I’ve found. 

    When people have jobs where they feel that way, they can work long hours, go home exhausted but and looking forward to returning the next day.  They love it.

    In speeches I often contrast that with my brother who at age 38 told me he was looking forward to retirement.  There are far too many people who would voice a similar comment.

  2. I love when leaders dismiss traditional thinking.  “We don’t lead anything because leadership implies that you have control. So we catalyze; we don’t lead.” This is genius.

  3. I agree that culturally, employee engagement is much more than getting your workforce to do what you want them to do, and that therefore the bond between leaders, managers and employees must be powerful for that to happen. I also agree that employees need to feel they have a voice, and that their voice is being heard. But does anyone else think that getting people to believe what you want them to believe is a little akin to brainwashing? 

  4. I’m going to go ahead and disagree. Strongly. I don’t read this article the way that fawning sycophants do. Rather, what I see in Whitehurst’s comments is manipulation and dismissal. Even the structure of the statement that seems to so animate Mr. Hollon reveals a rather dark shadow. “Getting them to believe what you want them to believe” inherently rejects others contributions and input. “Your beliefs don’t matter here. My job as leader is to get you to believe (or at least act like you do) what I want you to believe.” This isn’t about engagement, it’s about compliance.

    Similarly, Whitehurst’s comments about inclusion belie what appears to me to be an inherently exclusionary mindset. Read it again and you’ll probably see: “We let debate happen, and you kind of let it burn itself out.” In other words, we encourage people to babble away, but we certainly don’t feel obligated to listen to them. It’s really just our way of managing change, to make people feel like they might have been heard.

    I think this is very far indeed from “the best definition of employee engagement” anyone will ever read. The art of leadership isn’t “getting people to believe what you want them to believe,” it’s aligning people’s beliefs and purpose with the purpose of the organization or team. That’s a totally different thing. The first inherently defines people as nothing more than replaceable units of energy whose beliefs can be switched on or over at the whim of the “real” people. The latter implies a joint effort built on respect and the conviction that the contribution of all matters.

    People don’t have to have “decision rights” in the latter scenario. But it’s a pretty good bet that they’ll be respected, honored, and included than in the former. In the end, THAT’S the ticket to engagement: not just getting someone to believe what you think is right for them, but jointly creating with them the conditions in which their contribution actually matters.

  5. Jim Whitehouse is dead on although I don’t think everyone has to always agree or believe in one way.  It’s being really heard that’s the crucial point as well as explaining the reasons for decisions.  The opposite has been true in many companies where I’ve conducted engagement surveys.  Pretty simple concept; I don’t know why people in charge don’t get it.  It really boils down to respect for the intelligence of your work force. 

  6. The best description of employee engagement I ever heard was at Australia Zoo – the zoo set up by the late Steve Irwin, Crocodile Hunter – they had to lock employees out at night time and not allow them in before 6am to keep them away from the place – now THAT’S employee engagement!

  7. It is great to see that common sense is now in fashion. Business leaders should realize: slaves work out of fear, employees work hoping for a better situation and partners work for the success of your business. Which of the three do you think will pray for your demise and which will work toward your triumph?

    It can be a very easy fix actually. What would happen if you made everyone a partner –at least in theory? You would then have hundreds if not thousands working to make you successful. As opposed to having many ‘work enemies’ on your payroll. Engagement is the key to making the transition from slave to employee. Rewards and recognition will get your employees to become partners.

    What would be the simplest way to facilitate this transition? If a company had a private social network it could engage its workers on a social level. The network could also incorporate game technology in order to reward and recognize worker contributions. In the same way that families and friends use Facebook, twitter and other social networks to foster close ties, this private network could allow businesses to do the same. The possibilities are limitless and take full advantage of a company’s human capital.{s}hareCLOUD creates these networks and could be the key to true engagement. This will change the way we work, live and play.

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