What Is Employee Engagement? Here’s How It’s a Lot Like Marriage

What’s the No. 1 most helpful (or most heard) relationship advice? I reckon it’s to remind people, “You can’t change the other person.”

And this is wise advice, indeed. Too many relationships fail because one person thinks they can change the other person’s annoying or downright disturbing habits or mannerisms over time.

This simply isn’t true. One person cannot change another. But don’t worry; this isn’t turning into an Agony Aunt blog (or, for my American readers, a “Dear Abby” blog). While I’m sure the vast majority of you agree with this advice, many of you also likely think you can do something (create a program, start an initiative) to engage your employees.

This, too, simply isn’t true. An engagement program (and certainly not an engagement survey) will ever engage employees. But, much like building a relationship based on mutual trust and appreciation, you can create a workplace culture and environment in which employees choose to engage.

What brought all of this to mind? An engagement battle going on amongst several bloggers I regularly follow and admire.

Happy employees, engaged employees are very different

It started with William Tincup’s post on Fistful of Talent, The Long Con of Engagement, in which he says (ellipses are original to the content):

Do me a favor … for just one moment today … think critically about engagement. Do you really want happy employees? Please stress test the logic … what if they are happy but they suck? Do you still want them in your organization? What’s more important to your particular organization: happiness or competence? … Lastly, I’m tired of people pimping out engagement as if it were some super elixir that fixed everything that ails us. It doesn’t. Truth hurts sometimes.”

I agree with William on this, with one very important caveat. Happiness and engagement are two very different things.

Happy employees (like satisfied ones) could be so because you offer Starbucks in the café. But truly engaged employees are voluntarily working harder every day because they want to, and they’re working hard on projects and objectives that matter to you.

Engagement is not a program “done” to employees

Then Paul Hebert chimed in on his i2i blog, pointing out:

The problem is that most companies still think of engagement as something they ‘do to’ employees or in even worse cases, ‘do for‘ employees.  And engagement isn’t something employees “give” employers. … If you want engagement – the real kind – make it a dialogue. Both parties give, both parties get. It’s not about what you want or what the company wants. Engagement is about what is right for the both of us. No one was ever engaged by being handed everything they ever wanted. No one is engaged when they get absolutely nothing they need.”

I also agree with Paul. No “program” will ever deliver what both employees and employers need. But everyone benefits from a strong culture of recognition in which everyone wants to engage. (Be sure to click through to Paul’s post for an excellent Dilbert cartoon parodying engagement in its worst form.)

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Engagement is not a “definition”

Then Jason Lauritsen chimed in (here at TLNT) to point out that we can’t even agree on what the definition of engagement is, much less how to go about creating an environment where engagement can happen. His advice is spot on:

Why wouldn’t you want your employees engaged in their work and in your organization (however you define it)? It’s not engagement that’s the problem. The problem is how we are practicing and managing employee engagement. Employee engagement isn’t a survey or a score. A survey is a tool. A score is number. Engagement is neither of those things. The key to cracking the code on engagement is in the execution. We need to be much more intentional and deliberate about our work with engagement starting with getting clear on what we mean when we say engagement and how it impacts our business.”

An engaging culture is possible – if we want it

Finally, Jessica Lee (again on Fistful of Talent), boiled this all down to the real question:

Why can’t we – especially us HR and recruiting types – simply believe in a better vision for work and bring that vision to life for our organizations? Even if it means we slowly chip away toward that diamond in the rough. Engagement. Not sheer, pure ecstasy for the work we do. Not an ultra-scientific thing that we hypothesize, test, re-test and analyze. But something else.”

It’s that “something else” that I believe all the employee engagement pundits are trying to get to. Yes, as William Tincup says, “work is work.”

But it doesn’t have to be soul crushing. We might not enjoy every aspect of what we do every day we do it. But we should, at least, believe in why we’re doing it, appreciate the people we’re doing it with, and enjoy the culture in which we’re able to work.

What say you? Where do you fall on “engagement?”

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 irvine@globoforce.com.


12 Comments on “What Is Employee Engagement? Here’s How It’s a Lot Like Marriage

  1. You are all correct, engagement is not the issue. It is Inspiration! We have moved past both Satisfaction (happy) and Engagement, to where the workforce has to feel and be inspired by the work they do and the contributions they make to organizational performance. The most successful organizations, use any measure of success you want, are those whose employees are inspired by what the organization stands for AND whose own personal values and purpose are aligned with the Purpose of the organization. These employees may not be happy (compensation, work environment, or work hours), they may not like their immediate manager (engagement), but they are inspired to do whatever it takes to satisfy the aligned purpose: theirs and the organization’s.
    Inspired employees work for less pay, longer hours, and tolerate bad bosses. The working  conditions are not always great, and the physical and emotional demands can be stressful, but the vision of the higher purpose provides the inspiration needed to overcome all obstacles.
    It’s enabling an Inspired workforce that will be an organization’s competitive advantage, not engaged employees!

  2.  More on Tincup’s comment: Years ago heard about research that sought to find the relationship between employee satisfaction and performance. It found that happy employees weren’t always high performers (no surprise).

    However, it found that high performers were always happy. Oh yes, the research was done for the US Postal Service.

    Lesson: help employees get really good at what they do, then you can be sure they’re happy. The cart, horse thing.

  3. Interesting take on employee engagement! One way to ensure better employee engagement is to focus on engagement right from the hiring process. If you hire employees who really believe in your company values, they will be more engaged in their work. Whether you’re interviewing your candidates in person or through online video, make sure to properly assess their career goals and fit with your organization. If your company is their passion, you won’t have to worry about re-engaging these employees down the line.

  4. Engagement is about empowering employees to fully utilize their skills and potential in a conducive and supportive environment where they are doing the kind of work they not only enjoy but are equpped to do. They are then able to meet and even exceed the organisations’ expectations. This will give them the personal fufilment and joy that they are actually adding tangible value; which the organisation recognises, acknowledges and rewards. Most employees want to feel valued and be seen as being an integral part of the success of their organisation. You are spot on in that engagement is give and take. Most importantly, employees will even go beyond the extra mile with an an organisation in which they co-own and have more than a salary at stake in.

  5. Great post,

    Happy employees are not engaged employees. You can be engaged and not happy. What makes you to be engaged? The values of the organization in which you work. If you believe in them, because they are aligned with yours, then you can easily be engaged and able to experiment what Jessica Lee calls  “pure ecstasy for the work” you do. 

    To get your employees engaged, make sure they believe in the values of your organization. Then create the conditions for them to give and do their best and they will give their best, they will produce results, freely and happily.

  6. I agree engagement is a tricky topic.  The problem as I see it is that engagement is an outcome, and most current approaches are focused on engagement being an action.  Engagement is an outcome of a variety of actions and behaviours in a business, if engagement is low in yours, the issue is to find the actions you need to take or change that could alter the outcome, for instance altering your approach to performance management, giving line managers greater skills in supporting their teams to grow and so on.  None of those things are covered in what is usually talked about in engagement approaches.

  7. Thanks for pulling all these thoughts together, Derek! Employee engagement is more a concept, but we all want something concrete, so we fall for easy, tangible things that appear to give us what we want, and easy synonyms like, “engagement = happy.” Then we find out that those quick and easy recipes don’t cut it and we get disillusioned and say, “Forget that engagement crap! It’s a scam!”

    Employee engagement is not a pill. It is almost as complex a thing to achieve as creating a real strategy for your business – another activity filled with misconceptions and cookbook
    approaches that don’t work.

  8. Happy employees aren’t the same as engaged employees but happy and engaged employees are the best! I agree that a strong discourse on what is important and what the end goal is (for both employee and employer) will make a better engaged employee in line with the companies objectives. Whilst just giving an employee instant rewards (like free starbucks) will make them happy in the short term it is the long term employee benefits that will help to keep them engaged. 

    Employees like to feel that the employer and the company is just as engaged in them as they are in the company. 

  9. “The key to cracking the code on engagement is in the execution.” Absolutely true. The best way to increase engagement is to alter the way we manage our employees. When we start to consider how our management processes work for individuals, and altering them accordingly, we will then begin to see more engaged (and ultimately happier) employees.–Terry Barber, founder/Chief Inspiration Officer, Performance Inspired 

  10. Great post. Thank for for this interesting perspective.

    I believe that slowly but surely our workforce is running out of hope. Most managers are judges on performance based targets but if this is the only gauge we judge management abilities, we face a serious problem. Companies are so busy “measuring” productivity, yet they don’t seem to get a handle on the daily productivity loss. How productive can people be when they come to work and they are frustrated, negatived and stressed?

    Employee engagement is a term that is so overused (in words but not in practice) that companies don’t seem to respond anymore. I believe managers have to understand that emotional intelligence will become more and more important. To be able to inspire people (like mentioned before) is a key ingredient. Overall I think the people in organizations have to understand that it all comes down to the subtle discipline of how we interact with others on a daily basis. It’s the little things that are overlooked. How does my behaviour effect the behaviour around me. Maybe I had a fight with my spouse in the morning or the traffic to work was really frustrating and….. that’s how our days starts and that’s how it will continue if we are not aware. Most people believe that if their environment would change, they would change. In reality it is the exact opposite. 

    Bottom line, there has to be give and take on both sides. 

  11. One of the key problems with engagement is that it is seen as an HR-owned problem and solution. Engagement is related to each individual, from the lowest level up to the CEO. Engagement itself, regardless of how hard we try, is an intangible concept that feeds into more concrete metrics: specifically productivity and retention. As any Millennial will tell you from the bad rap they get, engagement is a very complicated, personal concept. Like all things digital, engagement is more about a tailored, personalized experience and employees having the opportunity to ‘choose your own adventure’ at work (and many times, outside of work). With the advent of the internet and mobility, the next generation is used to having a lot of choices and a lot of tailored experiences. This is what they expect. Is engagement overused? Maybe, but ignoring it would be a mistake as it is what the future expects.

    Thanks for sharing,
    Crystal Kadakia
    Gen Y Consulting, Millennial Consulting

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