Why You Need Employees – and Especially Engaged Employees
Why Employee Engagement Programmes Rarely Work

Beware Employee Engagement Hyperbole!

Unless you are Rip Van Winkle and have been asleep for the past decade and more, you cannot have failed to notice the increasing prominence of employee engagement. It is a topic that has become a key priority for the HR profession and that is also dominating discussion in the executive suite. CEO’s, facing an ever-increasing challenge to implement strategy in a high-pressured, constantly changing, competitive environment, are waking up to the wisdom of Doug Conant’s words, “To win in the marketplace you first have to win the workplace.”  

In other words to be successful you have to win the support of your employees. You cannot will your way to success and you can no longer command your way there either. It is no wonder that employee engagement is such a hot issue. Unfortunately, there is a great danger that it is being over-hyped.

I encountered two very different examples of that this week.    

The first instance was an article that said:  “Smarter Employee Engagement is about connecting your people to what success looks like for your business, creating a culture that supports that and building a powerful employer brand. Through effective Internal Communication, smarter Employee Engagement helps people understand the role they play – and how critical that is to achieving ground-breaking business results.”

SteamingPlease! From this it would seem that we have already moved beyond employee engagement into something called “smarter employee engagement.”  Yet what it describes is what employee engagement is and what every organisation should be doing anyway! There is nothing smarter about this; it is what leadership and management is fundamentally all about.  

This illustrates the extent to which the subject has become a product or service offering. The marketing department has been given the concept and asked to write differentiating copy.  The result is dangerous because – at the end of the day – employee engagement is largely an umbrella heading that covers a multitude of different activities and so means different things to different people. It is enough of a challenge to create a common understanding without confusing the picture by implying different levels. 

The second example was the promotion of an employee engagement survey. This included a number of questions or statements which – graded on a 1 to 5 scale – were intended to reveal the extent to which employees were engaged or disengaged. This included such statements as:-

  • The amount of work I am expected to do is reasonable; and
  • Other departments co-operate with our department.

Now I readily confess to an inherent bias against employee surveys to determine employee engagement on the grounds that there are better ways to determine whether people are engaged. But this once again struck me as a product looking for a market rather than a useful tool! What kind of manager needs to conduct a survey to ascertain whether different departments are co-operating?  Surely you can identify this from their performance and do not need a survey to flush out the problem?

I accept that both these statements would reveal a latent problem if it had not already come to light, but that’s the point. In any worthwhile organisation worth problems like this should have already been identified. Depending on a survey like this to identify them is poor management and encourages poor management. You should have other in-built means to identify issues like this and far sooner, before they could get the company into difficulties.

So don’t be fooled by all this hyperbole. At the end of the day employees are people and employee engagement is ultimately about nothing more than how best to deal with your people; by treating them as human beings. After all, as Conant clarified, they are what ultimately determine your success.  


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