Every time I hear the phrase employee engagement a little piece of me dies….


I'm not the first to say it and know it's a strange thing to say, particularly for someone who spends their time supporting organisations to improve their performance by developing engagement levels.

But for me the phrase 'employee engagement' has always been a problem, I've never liked it, it's never sat well with me, but it took me a while to really understand why.

The problem I have with it is, that as soon as someone realises that they have something that they can sell, and people are prepared to pay for, they make it complicated. They make 'it' as complicated as possible so that 'they' appear as 'the' people that you need to help you understand it all, if you pay them some cash of course!

For me the opposite is true, engagement should be simple, extremely simple.

I recently read an article in inc.com where one of the contributors said:

“The problem with employee engagement experts is they take well-meaning concepts and over engineer them to the point that they don't bear any resemblance to what normal people understand,”

That pretty much nails why I don't like the term 'employee engagement'. As soon as it's used it immediately starts to limit how you think. Simply by categorising who you're looking to 'engage' as employees means you start to 'only' think about engaging employees rather than 'people'. It encourages organisations and managers to view employees as mere tools of productivity rather than as real human beings, and more importantly, it's not what normal people understand.

In the 20 or so years I've been working in this field, the single biggest thing I've learned is that employee engagement has absolutely nothing to do with 'employees' and everything to do with 'people'. If all you're doing is trying to engage the employees then you're missing the point. You're missing the one thing that it takes to engage them and that's to understand them, all of them, not just the bit of them that spends time doing stuff they get paid to do, but who they are and what's important to them.

Although many have been highlighting the number of disengaged workers for many years, today 79% of businesses are seriously worried about engagement and retention, according to Deloitte. Globally, only 13% of employees are highly engaged, says Gallup. So, if employee engagement programs are so effective, then why are so many workers still checked out?

The problem is that many people are focused on the wrong things, getting too caught up in surveys, data and measurement rather than empathy, behaviour and good old social skills to create trust and build relationships.

Surveys are fine and still have a place in helping to prioritise things, but simply having actual conversations and asking employees 'what can we do better?' is much more valuable. If employees don't feel they can sit down with their boss and have a conversation, it doesn't matter how many surveys you run, you have a problem.

A useful test for any manager is to ask yourself, 'how much do I know about the people I work with?' Not just how long have they been here, what they last did last week, or how they like their coffee, but who are they? What are their lives about? What's important to them? If you don't know the answers, you haven't built up a relationship or level of trust with them, and you probably won't know when things are wrong.

So, don't overly worry about employee engagement. Instead, treat people well, listen to them, and give them room to grow. Don't do that just to squeeze more productivity out of them, they'll see that coming, but because it's the right thing to do. And if your heart is in the right place, they'll see that too.