Employee Engagement Doesn’t “Belong” to Any One Group of Experts: Here’s Why…

Portrait of successful businesswoman looking at camera with several employees behind

Now and then I get on my soap box and complain that one group or another has hijacked an area in which I am interested, like employee engagement or work culture. A nice, very humble piece by Jane Revell the other day reminded me that this is still happening: Jane, an internal communications person, pointed out (among several other things) that it is a myth that such people as herself are the Gods of employee engagement. Amen!

To understand why no one group with a specific background and focus can rightfully make any such claim, it’s important to remember what employee engagement is and isn’t:

–like anything in the social sciences, its complicated. Chemistry types can tell us that water is H2O, every time and every place. No one can make any statement like that about engagement of workers, and in fact there is a debate raging even as I write this, as to what it is. This is not a new phenomenon, it also happened with intelligence, and is happening with emotional intelligence today. Having said that, we do know a few things:

–engagement happens when the organization in question creates a work environment which is so appealing to people there that they have positive emotions about it, they like being there.  I’m not just talking about the physical environment, which is of course important, but much more about the “psycho-social” environment, better known as “culture“.

–as a result, some… but not all…the people who work there are willing to “go the extra mile” in the role they play to achieve the organization’s mission.

–in turn, as long as enough people feel and act this way, the organization benefits from a big performance boost, something which is well documented and easily passes the “common sense” test. Would you rather be served coffee by someone who loves working at that coffee place, or someone who just cant wait to quit and go home?

Now if we break down this scenario, we see a number of elements in it:

–the culture is mainly driven by the values and beliefs of leaders, which they then communicate to workers through various conscious and (often) unconscious means.

–but the culture is also driven by the national culture in which the organization exists, its own history, the business it is in, its particular strategy within that business sector and so on. Again, common sense, always a good guide, tells us that the culture of a company operating nuclear power plants is quite different…MUST be quite different…. from that of a tech startup in San Francisco. And that the Chinese, Swiss or British national cultures will affect work cultures in those countries.

–the reaction to that culture depends on what type of people work there; their personalities, their own values and their past histories, all of which drive whether they choose to engage or not.

–that reaction especially depends on how the culture flows through to the people at work via the structure, people in power and processes of the organization. As one important example of this, it depends on the boss to whom they have been assigned, that boss’s personality, management style and people skills. My data, and that of others, suggests that some 88% of a worker’s level of engagement depends on the relationship they have with their boss, a sobering thought……

–finally, in order to know whether or not (and where) engagement levels are high, low or neutral in any organization, we need to measure and assess what is “out there”. Otherwise we are on a trip with no map to tell us where we are and whether we are getting closer to where we want to go.

I could go on a lot longer, but I will cut to the chase here: look up at the words I have italicized above.  Communication, performance, values, beliefs, culture, emotion, personality, management style, business, strategy, relationship, measurement. Do the people who know the most about these things all belong to one group, like psychologists, internal communications experts, management experts, strategists, etc? Of course not.

So, please….let’s all be a little humble here: I know very little, to be honest, about setting up and delivering a great internal communication plan. I have seen it done by experts and its complicated and requires a lot of skill. But I also know that people with those skills don’t necessarily know so much about personality, emotion, relationships and management theory….and the same can be said for many of the other “experts” who have emerged in this area.

If you are a large enough organization which has determined that these must be core competencies (Google comes to mind), you have some or many of these skills in house. If you are not, you can call on consultants who have them. But always be aware that someone with a limited background who promises you that they can do everything which employee engagement requires will only be able to deliver on a limited set of those things. Caveat emptor, in the engagement field as much as anywhere else.

Unfortunately I believe that poorly executed employee engagement (and culture) efforts are too frequently found in organizations as a result of the things I have talked about here.  Perhaps this is one reason why, with so much effort and money expended, employee engagement levels in major countries around the world (e.g. US, Germany, UK) are stagnant?  One reason, by no means the only one…..

What do you think?  I’d love to know…..

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LinkedIn profile/contact: http://www.linkedin.com/in/davidbowlesphd

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