A little thing called engagement

Part One – Let’s get to know each other first

by TIM LOTHERINGTON | Published on April 22nd, 2022

This is the first of a three-part mini-series exploring employee engagement.  Now, engagement is not new and it’s not the latest buzz word. It has in fact been around the block many times, had its tyres changed from time to time and even had a spray paint. But as a vehicle for improving productivity, it is parked at the moment right outside the CEO’s office. That is to say it’s front and centre of many business leaders’ minds, and levels of engagement are at historically low numbers.  

So, we’re going to open up the bonnet, take a look inside to understand the machinations better and perhaps even tinker to see if we can supercharge this thing called engagement.  

And that is the end of the car analogies (almost).  

It’s hard to imagine (but bear with me) a CEO or People Leader leaning back in their chair, hands behind their head, possibly feet up on a desk, congratulating themselves that they have a fully engaged workforce. Their company is bucking the trend, and then some.  The results of the employee survey just in. High scores all around. Happy days. “We’ve got this engagement thing licked” they’re thinking to themselves. We are so good at this people stuff.  Right, now the leadership team can put increased focus on product development, the customer experience, new markets, international expansion and other really important things. Perhaps, they wonder to themselves, this warrants a small glass of single malt from that expensive bottle stashed in the desk drawer. Perhaps if it was 1990 anyway. 

But we need to get ourselves in the real world as this scenario is hard imagine for three major reasons, leaving to one side that this is not exactly commonplace right now.  

Firstly, CEOs know that whatever levels of engagement their organisation enjoys, it could always be better. There is always room for improvement, and even small improvements on high levels of engagement can equal big rewards. But I’m not going to hit you with the stats just yet, I need to keep YOU engaged.  

The second reason the whiskey is staying in the drawer is that if an organisation is enjoying high levels of engagement it is likely this is a result of a lot of hard work from the Senior Leadership and People teams. Engagement doesn’t just happen. You can’t just pour it out of that bottle. It needs to be worked on, and constantly. I like to think of it as a hungry and thirsty beast, never satisfied. It would be unusual to stop putting effort in, when you have achieved so much and run the likely risk of it all slipping away. It would be like telling your best performing sales team to take the rest of the year off. This CEO’s legs are staying off the table.  

The final reason this scenario is super unlikely, and I bet you’ve already got there, is that CEOs know that engagement is not measured by employee surveys alone. Absolutely, your Pulse or Gallup results can provide an indication of how people are feeling (we’re going to define engagement in a moment), but they will not give you the complete picture. Smart leaders would not celebrate survey results, unless they had also considered other key factors such as attrition, online company ratings, active intranet or internal social media users and much more.   

Our super smart CEO (I should have mentioned earlier, this CEO is on top of their game – just like mine) is rightly pleased with the survey results, but he or she sees them in the bigger picture. They arrange a meeting with the People and Culture Director and the Head of Employee Experience, with the message – great job team, now let’s dial up our employee engagement activities to 11. 

So the initial two points of this piece is that engaging your workforce is like painting the Forth Rail Bridge (or Golden Gate if you’re reading in the US). It’s a job that’s never finished. You might think you got there, but you need to go back and repeat and repeat and keep going. Oh no, sounds like hard work. The second point is that boosting engagement is well within a Leaders grasp. Yeah! There is much you can do and after attending a recent Employee Engagement conference (in person!), organisations are taking engagement very seriously.  

In the next post we are going to explore why organisations are investing so heavily, but there is something we haven’t done yet. Let’s get a definition down. It’s important we know we are talking about the same thing. Especially as employee engagement can be seen as a little vague, fuzzy, indistinct, even nebulous. A quick online search and you’ll see it being described as a state of mind by some – a positive attitude employees hold towards their organisation and its values. I like the mention of the values, which define an organisation.  This one is nice: “Employee engagement is how an employee responds to their organisation and everything within it, be it positively or negatively”. Let’s keep it simple, engagement is a feeling of positive connection to your organisation.   

And one thing it’s not necessarily is a happy work force, although there are correlations. Consider the happy employee enjoying their role very much. Why though? Could it be they are enjoying being on easy street, getting away with doing well precious little. Especially with this hybrid working model their company has just implemented. A couple of hours on Teams at home, the rest of the time pottering in the garden or playing Grand Theft Auto (there it is!). Happy days. Enjoying the role? Damn right. Engaged and productive? Hmm, not so much.  

At the recent conference, it was interesting hearing Leaders describe a fully engaged employee. Many spoke of people who were proud to work there, they’d happily tell their friends about their employer, they were advocates for the business. I also heard an engaged employee was enthusiastic about the direction of the organisation and its values. Definitely loyal, they’re not going to join the great resignation any time soon.   

I might add that they are real people too! They smile, joke and maybe even join in a little with the water cooler jokes about how rubbish everything is. But they don’t really mean it. And they will push back against the worst cynics. They crack on with their jobs and they are super productive. This pricks up the ears of any CEO. And when working from home they don’t spend 6 hours gaming. Simply put, they believe in the organisation they work for, they want it to be successful and wish to play a role in this success.  Get a majority of these folks in your organisation, then watch it fly.   

In the next article, we’re going to take a look at some numbers that back up a few statements made here (engagement is low, engagement is important). I’ll try to keep it interesting.  I know just saying engagement is important is like saying the French like a strike*. It’s just a fact. But facts need unpicking. So we’ll also take a look at techniques for building engagement. I’ll share some learnings from our clients and those that spoke at the engagement conference. Maybe even chuck in an example or two when efforts have gone wrong. I know you’ll want to hear that. See you next time. 

*Northerners don’t feel the cold / Man City buy titles / Nobody likes Will Smith any more / Australians bang on about how great their country is / Mike Jagger has seen better days / NHS workers are heroes