It’s Not Employee “Engagement” If It’s Not Freely and Willingly Given

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What exactly is “employee engagement?” Most definitions I see somehow reference “discretionary effort.” But my latest favorite definition of employee engagement comes from the HR Capitalist, Kris Dunn:

“Discretionary effort that you don’t have to threaten someone to get.”

I’m fairly certain you can’t call it “engagement” if you have to threaten to get it. Perhaps “enslavement” or “enforcement,” but definitely not “engagement.”

What are you asking employees to engage with?

This idea is an extreme extension of managers “making” employees feel engaged, an idea Lonnie Wilson debunked in a recent Industry Week article. Lonnie also pointed out focusing on helping employees want to do the job and do it better is not the best use of resources to help employees engage.

Instead managers should make sure employees understand what they need to do to accomplish the job, they have the appropriate skills and training to execute the work appropriately, and they have the necessary resources. Without those factors in place, it’s nearly guaranteed that your employees will not be engaged in their work.

Perhaps the most important question is what, precisely, are you asking employees to engage with? Indeed, you want them to “do the job.” But does that job – and the employee’s understanding of it – link up with what you are trying to achieve overall in your business?

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The challenge for managers and leaders

Recent TNS research pointed out how significant the challenge is for supervisors and leaders to align business objectives with employees’ engagement efforts:

TNS analysis on employee engagement reports a 52 percent gap in operating costs between companies with highly engaged employees to companies with low engagement scores,’” says Mike Schroeder, Chief Executive Officer of TNS Employee Insights.  …

Senior consultants at TNS identified four specific steps for organizations to capitalize on the economic value of employee engagement programs:

  1. Link employee engagement to business objectives and measures of effectiveness.
  2. Invest in employee programs specifically designed to increase engagement and that support business objectives,
  3. Establish a system of measuring engagement and the effectiveness of these programs.
  4. Make adjustments based on the discernible results.”

As I discussed last week in a webinar with BlessingWhite (recording available here), it’s not enough to implement employee engagement programs or run employee engagement surveys. You must be willing to take action and, critically, measure results. It’s the only way to align engagement efforts with what matters to your CEO: bottom-line results.

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at


10 Comments on “It’s Not Employee “Engagement” If It’s Not Freely and Willingly Given

  1. Just like “forced fun” is not really fun…forced engagement is rarely engagement…

    Great points!


    1. Funny, Sean. A colleague tells me the “Fun Force” committee at a prior job quickly became known as the “Forced Fun” committee.

  2. Indeed. This is akin to what I used to tell me kids, “You’ll do this and like it…”  Good post.

  3. Love this Derek.  Another thing for the managers, bosses and even CEO’s ; They need to Engage with the employee. Besides making it clear what the requirements and expectations are. Be interested, ask questions, Listen, ENGAGE, CARE.  You know that saying; “People don’t CARE how much you know, until they know how much you CARE”  It is true.  Employees want to have a voice, they want to matter, feel valued.  When the “Big Dogs” engage with employees, that feeling is expressed.  Another one to remember is; “If you want to be interesting, first be interested”.  Ok.  I have rambled enough.

    Thanks again Derek and take CARE.


    1. Very true, Al. The good news is many managers understand this – as do many employees who care for each other.

  4. As managers and leaders you should have certain level of flexibility with your staff. Learning what makes you or another employee feel empowered doesn’t mean it will work for all staff. You should truly make the effort to learn what each employee values most and attempt to offer that. Thanks Derek! 

    1. Adam, this is an important distinction. I cringe at programs like desk massages for engagement. That would not be at all engaging for employees who do not not like to be touched by strangers – and I’m not at all sure what it has to do with helping employees understand the value and importance of their contributions such that they *want* to engage.

  5. “Employee Engagement” has become a buzzword that is slowly losing its true meaning.  If it takes the form of an underused suggestion box or a small and powerless “engagement committee”, your employee engagement efforts will have the opposite effect. 

    1. Jump – those sound like employee satisfaction efforts of old – far different from true engagement work.

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