I’m Getting Really Tired of All the Talk About Employee Engagement

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Recently I came across a sponsored article in Fast Company, titled Happiness Secrets from the Staff of Delivering Happiness at Work. Apparently Zappos’  leadership team has launched a new consulting business on how to achieve Zappos’ fun culture — using fun culture as a measure of engagement.

Who knew? One picture in the article shows three employees with rubber noses. That’d go over well with customers interested in effective growth of their investment portfolio …

Several blog sites that I frequent post myriad articles on employee engagement – from how important it is, to how much additional revenue is generated by engaged employees, to why it is different than satisfaction. And then, there was the “happiness” article.

Has the word “engagement” lost all meaning?

Inc. magazine carried a post, The Dark Side of Employee Engagementin which the authors cite Leadership IQ’s recent study showing that those who were most “engaged” might not be the best performers. They caution the reader to clearly understand the definition of engagement, when embarking on a study to determine engagement levels.

I have come to the conclusion that “engagement” has become one of those buzzwords that has lost its meaning because it is so overused. And I fear that focusing on “engagement” has caused us to lose sight of what is really important – skilled leaders who can move teams forward.

I watched an organization spend six figures annually on engagement surveys, while totally missing the opportunity to develop new leaders, identify future leaders, and help those leaders lead effectively. Year after year, the organization patted itself on the back for slight movement in engagement scores. Yay – we’re moving from mediocre to a little bit less mediocre!

How in heaven’s name can an organization measure or improve engagement without investing in leaders who have the skill to engage?

Conceptually, engagement is complex. Is the employee productive? Is the employee achieving the critical business goals? Is the employee going to look elsewhere for employment, thereby leaving a vacancy that costs money?

It isn’t simply performance and it isn’t simply being committed to the organization. The complexity comes in recognizing that those two elements are different for every employee.

Developing a committed, productive workforce

So who is in the best position to lead employees to high performance and commitment? My thought: their leader.

So how does the organization know if leaders are effective in developing a committed and productive workforce?

Ah, so that’s the big question that leads to engagement surveys. Senior leadership needs empirical data to know if the subordinate leaders are effective. That’s a pretty costly venture to acquire empirical data when the data might be right there staring them in the face.

“Leaders of leaders” – those individuals to whom leaders report – have a challenge that is unique to their role. Like all leaders, they need to effectively develop their talent. But the talent they need to be developing is skill and competence in leading others.

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I contend that “leaders of leaders” have tools available to them that are low cost and high payoff. These tools provide insight into subordinate manager leadership skills, connect them to the employees and may, in fact, uncover innovation and process improvement.

Tools that “leaders of leaders” can utilize

Give some of these a try. They may sound a bit simplistic, but they work.

  • Read the performance reviews subordinate managers writeabout their employees. Make the performance review system work for you by using it to observe managers’ skills in talent development.
    • Do they differentiate in performance?
    • Do they provide helpful feedback?
    • Do the employees make comments? What happens to those comments?
    • What are the follow up plans when employees are not performing?
    • How are they developing their top talent?
  • Walk through work areas frequently and talk to the employees. Will this cause anxiety for their leader? Perhaps, but that makes it even more important and once they see you are doing it to learn and help, their trust in you builds.
  • Ask to sit in on staff meetings. What a wealth of information that will provide….everything from how effectively the leader leads a meeting, to what they talk about, and whether or not they leave with an actionable plan. It also gives an opportunity for a Q&A.
  • Ask about the interview and hire process when a subordinate is filling a vacancy. Even more fundamental, ask “how do you know that you need this position?” If they cannot tell you that, they have not done their due diligence.
  • Ask about the on-boarding plan for a new hire. How will they help the new hire assimilate quickly and efficiently. Talk with the new hire after a couple months and find out about his/her experience.
  • Host “coffee with the leader” for small groups of employees and let them plan ask questions. Asking questions of them gives you a sense of how well they know the business, the strategy and the goals. A key responsibility of leaders is to communicate and align the messaging throughout the organization.

Engagement is all about effective leadership

As I have said before, this is not the time for a heavy hand. If you don’t like what you see or hear, this is your opportunity to model mentoring and coaching. Share what you learned with the subordinate leader and work together to figure out how you feel about what you learned, then make a plan and follow through. This is dialogue, and it works wonders.

Don’t have time to do this? Oops, wrong answer. This IS leadership.

Engagement? It’s all about effective leadership. Help leaders learn to dialogue.

And lest I offend my colleagues who offer surveys, I don’t mean to say I don’t think they are necessary, particularly when the organization becomes very large. The empirical data from a good survey provides valuable insight into an important part of the business.

But regular and honest dialogue throughout all levels of the organization is, in my mind, the best way to customize the concept of engagement to all of the different employees.

This originally appeared on the ….@ the intersection of learning & performance blog.

Carol Anderson is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in February 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications. Contact Carol at carol@andersonperformancepartners.com.


24 Comments on “I’m Getting Really Tired of All the Talk About Employee Engagement

  1. Great article, the
    benefits of a happy workforce are well documented, employee portals can be used
    to engage employees and improve internal communication, read a whitepaper on
    technology in HR that readers may find interesting @ http://bit.ly/10XoIQa

  2. The fact that “engagement” has become a universal part of business lexicon is good. It means more companies are accepting the challenge to compete on the quality of their workplace culture. Talent is THE core resource of business. And engagement is the new “profit”. It is the primary ingredient in growth, resilience, and innovation. And it’s forward looking.

    We can’t throw out real employee feedback loops and rely on the first two bullets under “Tools”. Performance reviews and staff meetings are the two most flawed artifacts of the Industrial Age. And they’ve been fueling sitcoms and stand up comics for a decade. Advances in brain science will make traditional versions of both obsolete in 5 years.

    1. Yep Greg – I agree with you – leadership is crucial, but there has to be an infrastructure established to keep talent in the forefront of the organization. I see a lot recently on brain science in the workplace, and look forward to reading more about it. In the meantime, I still think that the traditional performance review can actually add value if it becomes a tool for dialogue at all levels of the organization.

  3. I love the term and think the concept is important…but do think there are a few too many self-anointed “experts” on the topic. Probably the greatest misperception that I hear perpetuated is that engagement is something completely up to managers and leaders to create and build. It’s not. If you don’t start with talented individuals who have the capacity for caring about their work, finding some meaning/relevance in it, and taking ownership for the quality of their output, then all bets are off. Engagement is the grease that permits the gears of talent, intelligence and character to turn as efficiently as possible.

    1. It is a very important topic, but I like what William said, above. Those in his third bucket are good leaders who don’t worry about all of the various buzzwords – they just lead and do it well. What troubles me is the self-anointed “experts” as you say, who focus with blinders on their own product or service, without looking at the overall context. Thanks for your comments.

  4. I too am tired of hearing about engagement. After more than 30 years in business as a Human Resource professional, I think that I have a practical view on things – or maybe it is a cynical view. Anyway, the point is that there are different buckets that organizations seem to fall into on the topic of best practices, like employee engagement.

    First of all, most best practices come and go over time, making them fleeting practices, not at all enduring best practices. I guess that tells you something right there.

    Next, many organizations involved in the best practices you read so much about, like employee engagement, spend incredible sums of money on these best practices, but really don’t look or act too differently after the fact. These would be in Bucket #1.

    Then, there are those organizations that really need to get their employees engaged, but because no one there ever reads anything, employee engagement will come and go while these organizations never knew it existed. These would be in Bucket #2.

    Then there are those organizations that are run by bona fide leaders. These organizations don’t care about employee engagement as an extraneous best practice, because their employees were already engaged when someone decided that employee engagement was a discrete topic to be addressed separately from other inherent leadership practices. These organizations would be Bucket #3.

    One could argue that there are other Buckets, but I think you get the idea. Five years from now, I will be very surprised if “employee engagement” will be something written about and addressed by organizations. We will be on to something else, just as important, but just as fleeting.

  5. Great read! Important to clarify rubber noses to not equate to employee engagement in all industries, but great leadership engages employees in every sector. Consistent and reliable feedback, both from above and below, make a critical impact on behavior and accountability. An important part of leadership is sharing the vision and getting everyone invested, and engagement surveys can help accomplish that if they are executed properly and the results are implemented.

    Love the pointers.Thanks for getting the engagement conversation back on track.

    1. Thanks for the comments Elyssa. In many ways it is so simple. It’s just so hard to do in today’s environment of demands and information overload.

  6. Carol

    Great article. I really enjoyed your article and how the word engagement has become so overused. We definitely need skilled leaders who can
    move teams forward by developing new leaders, identifying future leaders and
    helping those leaders to lead effectively.

    Years ago when I was working at top notch consulting company, who will remain anonymous, we did an Employee core value survey every other year. My responsibility was for the Latin America Region and in one of our countries, the leadership team scored very poorly on the treatment of employees and overall employee engagement. When the leaders received the report for their country they didn’t like the results and simply chose to not share the survey with employees. Their reason: the survey was in English and their employees
    didn’t understand the questions. English was the official business language of the organization and therefore if you lived anywhere in the world where English wasn’t your first language you had to pass a proficiency test to be hired. Other leaders in the Americas knew this but they all failed to model the core values of the organization which included integrity and authenticity by letting these executives get away with this behavior. Obviously to the employees in that country, the word “engagement” lost all meaning.

    Recently I read an interesting article written by Mark C. Crowley on Creative Conversations – Gallup’s Workplace Jedi on How to Fix Our Employee Engagement Problem had some interesting takeaways. Dr. Jim Harter – Gallup’s chief scientist of workplace management and an expert in employee engagement talks about the importance of insuring systems are put into place to choose the right individual for all management roles. Harter believes that in today’s business this individual must have the right mix of results orientation and a deep concern for the development of every employee on an individual level. It’s to provide clear direction, maximize individual potential and do more for your team. Harter says “doing what’s right for people proves to right for the organization.” While our organization had the tools and the right values we didn’t have the right leadership in this country and employee engagement suffered.

    I personally find it difficult to understand why the concept of employee engagement is so hard for leaders to get. Leaders are not individual contributors! Leaders need to think of this role like parenting – it is something that you are tasked with the responsibility to do. Your article provided some excellent tools for the “Leaders of Leaders”. Sadly the truth is that most of these are just common sense.

    1. Hi Ellen! I sometimes think if leaders would lead, there wouldn’t be a need for the costly surveys. But alas, that would probably tank our economy. Thanks for the comment.

  7. I sort of mirrored some of this in a recent article about how “engagement” is a two-way street.

    And this points out an even larger problem: too many noble-sounding words are getting “over-applied,” with so many definitions being attached to them as to make them functionally meaningless. That in itself is a larger problem than we are not appreciating. IF you say “irregardless” the language police will eagerly jump down your throat, but the large scale loss of specific meaning of many words is a much larger problem. If we lose common language, we will not be able to communicate and work together beyond basic levels.


  8. Really good read Carol. While I don’t think engagement is 100% about leadership it is definitely a critical component. At my company we use a combination of software and processes(30 day check-ins with every team member) to engage team members while also grooming our next group of leaders. Leadership development we feel is paramount to moving our company forward and we spend a lot of time and effort in this area. We also do not subscribe to any sort of long and boring outside engagement survey but use a quick 10 or 12 question pulse tied to 10 areas of engagement based on research we’ve done. Lastly we also heavily leverage electronic peer to peer recognition which helps us in a variety of ways. We have developed a culture of recognition. We have a public feed that allows all team members to see all of the great things happening which would otherwise be very difficult without that feed. So IMO engagement has many components and at least at my company senior leadership has to lead the charge!

  9. The problem is what happens when words like engagement become buzzwords. We’ve seen it before with words like, stewardship,empowerment, and self directed work teams. A sound concept becomes something for leaders to check off their to do list, rather than something that needs to be understood before it is embraced.

    As Carol rightly points out leaders play an important role in engaging others and there are some simple things leaders can do that impact engagement. The conversation that I would add to the list is the “care conversation” where leaders and employees talk about what is important to them at work and why.

    Many factors impact engagement, the quality of leadership, the organization’s purpose, your work group, and finally the work itself, to name a few. What is often overlooked is the idea that engagement is a choice people make whether you are in a leadership position or not. No matter where you are in the organization you make a choice about the extent to which you engage with the purpose of the organization, the people around us and our work itself. Even when armed with Carol’s list of tools, you must make the choice to use them or not, and how you will use them. And most importantly, those whom you wish to engage will make the choice to engage with you or not. This is the beginning of engagement not the end.

    1. You know, Dick – it really is all about dialogue – thanks for your comment.

  10. Carol, nice to see a balanced discussion of engagement. From my experience engagement for most people is about respect. Do you respect the time I spend working for you enough to tell me what you want me to do when I’m at work, give me resources and autonomy so I can do it, and recognize and reward me when I meet or exceed your expectations. It is nice if work can also be a source of friends and love, but the foundation for any healthy relationship between a company and its employee is basic respect.

    Here’s a link to a blog that in many ways could be seen as a companion piece to this one.


  11. Unfortunately employee engagement is not a fad, and will probably be with us for many years. It is not just the employee engagement survey vendors and consultants feeding this frenzy, but also internal HR folks that have built careers managing the surveys and the engagement process within their companies. Even C teams and board members contribute by linking compensation of leaders to engagement scores.

    Good managers can manage better with timely data, but a once a year survey that may be measuring items that are out of the manager’s control is not the data they need. In addition to the tools/actions Carol mentioned, frequent data from employees targeting obstacles and opportunities for improvement, followed by dialogue between
    manager and team members can drive continuous improvement and create energized employees.

  12. Great reading. Too often EE is a tick box exercise for senior management “Hey folks, yes we’re listening, look at the annual survey we do”. But there is far more to it than that as Carol points out. Less tick boxing C-suite please.

    1. Yes, Andrew – checklists are overused! Thanks for the comment.

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