The Failure of ‘Employee Engagement’


It became a new way of measuring success in people management. The concept of ‘Employee Engagement’ gained such currency that a whole field of practice developed to transform our workforces into efficient troops of evangelists who would go the extra mile without being asked (or paid for it). But has this changed anything? And does the idea of “engaged employees” still have any useful meaning?

Employee engagement as a concept had its origins in three ideas. One was to try and ‘bottle’ the sense of ownership and commitment that some senior leaders had towards their organisation. One was to shine a bright light on ‘legitimate’ narratives in the organisation to celbrate, value and spread them. One was to sell a quantifiable measurement of people’s feelings to benefit those who sell staff surveys and specific engagement interventions.

The first of these was a positive development in the history of people management. Regardless of the answers, the question of why some people at the top of an organisation feel a greater sense of ownership than others is a good one to ask. What is it about being in a senior management position that means it feels natural to talk of “us” rather than “them” and to feel a sense of connection and shared identity? The elephant in the room is pay, but the more interesting answer is in having not only a voice but real influence in decision making too.

The second of these was a negative development and a mistake. To simplify perspectives into legitimate and non-legitimate is to put on blinkers and begin to think about the organisation in artificially narrow terms. To count the people who repeated legitimate narratives as engaged and those who presented alternative views as not engaged was the result of flawed thinking and wrong headedness. Ask the people working at any organisation where scandals have destroyed their reputation and consumer confidence. In the 21st Century any approach that categorises ‘group think’ as positive and ‘diversity of thinking’ as negative is irreparable. A passionate, thoughtful deviant is of much more value than a passive cheerleader.

The third of these was just another iteration of our unending drive to count, weigh and measure the way people are in organisations: “How wonderful it is to rely on a percentage figure that we can track each year than being ‘limited’ to anecdote, rumour and emotion!” As ever with quants, if you don’t feel you are getting what you need, you can always get more. Let’s have pulse surveys, engagement benchmarks, and comparators to inform ‘interventions’. Money in the bank, but for consultants and vendors rather than shareholders, employees and the tax office. People aren’t digital, they are analogue and there is no way of escaping this.

There is something useful in the concept of engagement but we need to accept that, as others have said, it is a natural product of sophisticated people management – not something you ‘do’ distinctly. The real benefit to engagement is to widen debate, embrace multiple perspectives and support a World view based on the famous Lippman quote: “When all think alike, then no one is thinking”.



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