Employee Engagement - Getting beyond the hype

I see that there are yet more articles on employee engagement, with “Is Engagement Working?” the latest piece in the November edition of People Management.

As the authors of the People Management article articulate, there are many, often contradictory, definitions of employee engagement. So, rather than ask “what is employee engagement”, let’s start by considering why the question arises in the first place.

In recent years we have seen a number of themes develop

1 we have moved towards a consensus view that all groups in an organisation have shared interests in its success
2 we have entered a period of rapid change (economically, technologically and socially) and organisations have struggled to meet the challenges
3 economic pressures looking for more out of less, compete with higher customer demands in terms of quality and value
4 early life experiences of new entrants to the work place (especially in the west) include much more autonomy and a view of the work place as another life style choice

These themes are colouring the strategy of most businesses. There is a growing awareness of the need to have a more strategically integrated approach to managing people so that these divergent concerns can be addressed. Broadly speaking businesses seem to have adopted two distinct styles of response

- an instrumental approach focusing on tools and techniques employed by managers – a cultural, holistic, view embracing diversity and extending empowerment to new groups

The instrumental approach fits with more traditional business cultures, where management control remains a key concern. Here we see organisations attempting to leverage scale and best practice to achieve a number of organisational objectives; objectives such as lower unit cost, lower employee turnover, higher customer satisfaction ratings. Tools will be deployed to address each of the themes, with focus shifting depending on the relative priority in the current phase of the strategic plan. The organisation can leverage scale and by deploying through the normal management channels delivery can be quick and efficient. However, as each initiative can seem to stand alone, and will be locked into a deployment plan, there can be a lack of relevance and flexibility by the time deployment meets the front line. Perhaps we could describe this as the Theory X model of employee engagement, a management knows best approach.

The cultural approach works in a different way. Here we see the starting point differently. There is an understanding that motivation is highest in individuals able to achieve personal growth and fulfillment coupled with a sense of personal esteem underpinned by recognition of achievement, status, and responsibility (Maslow, McGregor). Organisations embracing this model don’t offer predefined solutions, but create an environment in which the approach starts with the employees affected. This allows a flexible and organic response adjusting to changing circumstances, always relevant to today’s problems. However, the shift in culture may take time, divergence arise at a local level, and ambiguity about deliverables can be a concern. Knowledge sharing across the organisation is critical to enable informed local decision making. In contrast to the instrumental approach, we could describe this as the Theory Y model of engagement.

This difference is important. Many commentators have observed that engagement, however measured, is lower in times of difficulty, yet this is precisely when employee commitment to the organisation is more important. If your engagement model depends on a series of tools and techniques, when line managers are under pressure to reduce cost, at personal risk of redundancy, and face a host of competing priorities you can be sure that focus on engagement will waiver. The cost benefit of yet another HR initiative will be challenged and any advances in your measure of engagement will go into reverse. However, if your organisation has embraced the cultural model, then meeting the current challenges become a shared concern. Solutions developed can be embraced by employees even when adversely affected. Examples abound, even in businesses that are considered to be more conservative, like banking (see side bar on Lloyds Banking Group in the PM article.

The moral – be clear and realistic about what will work in your business. If its not ready for the Theory Y model of engagement adjust your approach and objectives accordingly. Don’t get caught up in fads, but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

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