Employee Engagement’s Big Issues for 2011

It’s a New Year so time to take a fresh look at the state of engagement at work, employee/partner/associate engagement, whatever you might call it. How is this field doing and what are the big issues facing it and its practitioners? What challenges do we face moving forward? Has engagement met its potential in terms of acceptance by the larger organizational community and its leadership?

First of all, 2010 has brought more evidence of the importance of morale and engagement at work as more and more data are added to the extensive set which Cary Cooper and I detailed in our late 2009 book on the subject. No one should now be doubtful that engagement at work is not only a correlate of performance (customer satisfaction, productivity, profitability and even worker health) but more importantly, a driver of this. So this our starting point, the fact that worker engagement is mission critical.

Again this background, there are several issues which this field faces in 2011, and we will look at three of them here:

Trends in Engagement: Are We Improving? Getting Worse?: depending on whom you talk to there might be good news or bad news. If you talk to Gallup, it would seem that engagement has not gone down during this Great Recession, which would seem incredible until you remember that this means that engagement of employed people has not gone down. Those who still have work perhaps feel so relieved that the downsizing machine has missed them, that that translates into some form of engagement. There are also some very well managed companies which have avoided layoffs by shortening the work week of those who work for them, and they indeed have benefited from stable engagement levels as a result. Some would suggest workers are now engaged only as long as the job market is bad, and they will then fly out of their jobs like out of a cannon, as soon as things turn around. Nonetheless, this is pretty good news and not as depressing as what we hear from others who collect data in this field, namely that both engagement and job satisfaction have suffered badly in the recession. The fact that these data do not agree is something we will cover in more detail next.

Definition of Engagement: as strange as this may seem, the fact that trend data detailed above differ so much (Gallup has engagement flat while some have a minus 9% shift in the last year) means only one thing, and that is that they are defining engagement differently and this is reflected in their questionnaires used to collect this data. This is troubling for the industry and I have talked about it before, but it is still the case. The field is quite fragmented and each practitioner seems to have different definition of what engagement “is”. Can we imagine what would have happened in the physical sciences if someone said water was H2O and others said, no its HO2…? But in the social sciences we are used to disagreements in definition (witness the arguments about intelligence when it was a very inexact and fairly new concept), although this does not mitigate the problems which this brings to the field of engagement. Somehow and in some way we need an industry standard definition so that all can get on the same playing field and know that we are talking about, measuring and tracking the same thing.

Professionalism of Practitioners: there has been an explosion in this field and it seems like everyone and his brother is now an employee engagement consultant. This is a bit like when your taxi driver gives you stock tips, and its time to pull back from the stock market. Maybe the field is a bit crowded and buyers of professional services in this area need to remember one of the few phrases I remember from my 5 years of English grammar school Latin: caveat emptor (buyer beware)! I am not saying that there are not great people in this field and I consider it very positive that many wish to help organizations improve in this area. However there is a two-part skill-set which is required to help an organization measure and/or improve worker engagement and morale. First a real professional in this field must have a knowledge of business issues derived from experience and learning in actual business settings, not just academic. Secondly, since engagement is about emotion and human behavior, it is essential to have a background in the social sciences, especially psychology, to really add value. I do not consider a background in communications sufficient, valuable yes but not sufficient for this. There have been too many times where I have seen great communications programs put together for the workforce which had a wonderful message but which in no way represented the way the organization culture really “lived”.

Hopefully 2011 will bring some improvements in these areas which will move engagement forward and into more and more organizations, where it should be. By most accounts the number of organizations which have ongoing and extensive worker engagement efforts is still quite low and I have never seen a number of more than 30% put forward for the US and the UK. The percentages in France, Germany and other European countries are lower even than this. This is pitifully low (given the huge benefits which accrue from it) and anything which can improve it is to be encouraged and welcomed. Part of the issue here is that some of the practitioners whom I have discussed above take a far, far too “touchy-feely” approach to the subject with prospective clients, which puts them off the subject.  As I discuss elsewhere here, morale and engagement are and should be focused on the ability of the organization to achieve its mission, and that is something any CEO can get behind given the overwhelming morale-performance connection to which this blog is dedicated. A second reason for low levels of engagement at work is that engaging workers means coming down off one’s high horse, letting go of ego-based behavior and fears, and some leaders find that hard, if not impossible, to do.  As I have pointed out, ego is probably the greatest destroyer of engagement at work.

So that is where I see this field as we begin 2011, and clearly there is lots to do.  The three areas I have discussed above would be a good start!

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