Talent Management

The Two Keys to Making Employee Engagement Truly Matter

Engaged Employee

This week, I had the opportunity to sit on a panel discussion about employee engagement at the Southwest Learning Summit hosted by the Dallas Chapter of ASTD (American Society for Training and Development).

The panel discussion was tuned to help training and development professionals understand the role they play in employee engagement. The discussion touched a lot of different topics, but it kept coming back to two main themes:

  1. Definition; and,
  2. Business impact.


Employee engagement is an idea or a construct that we created somewhere along the line to have a common term to refer to a bunch of messy and intangible things that happen within our workforce. While most people seem to have a sense that engagement is important and that it’s important to their organization, their definitions of what engagement actually is varies widely.

The first question posed to the panel involved sharing how we define employee engagement and, as you might guess, there were four different answers.

This illustrates one of the major challenges at the center of our work around employee engagement — we talk about it as if it is a clearly defined and universally understood thing. It is not. And it’s okay that engagement is defined differently by different people, but we have change how we talk about it and stop pretending like we all define it the same way.

One of the panelists, Todd Mitchem, challenged the audience to think about the word “love” as an example.  Everyone knows the word “love” and has a general sense of the word as describing a positive emotion, but everyone defines love in their own unique way through the lens of their own experiences.  Engagement is very similar in that every individual has a different understanding and experience of it.

This issue was brought to clarity by Tricia Danielsen from the Bellevue University Human Capital Lab when, rather than provide her own definition of employee engagement, she said that what’s really important is to have a clearly and universally  understood definition of engagement within your organization.

Amen, because here’s the thing:  you can’t measure something you haven’t defined.

Definition is the first step of measurement. And one of the issues in the employee engagement business is that too many people chose an engagement survey vendor they like (often for varying reasons) and then that vendor’s definition of engagement is inadvertently thrust upon the organization as the default.

That’s putting the cart ahead of the horse. The correct order is to define what engagement means to your organization, how you intend to cultivate it, and then go find or create the right way to measure it (vendor survey or not).

Business impact

The other point that consistently came up throughout the panel conversation was that we need to keep in focus that the reason we work on engagement is to drive business outcomes that are mission critical to the organization. It seems that there are a lot of organizations out there who are doing an annual survey and going through the motions of engagement to chase an improvement in their “engagement score.”

Guess what?  The engagement score doesn’t mean anything unless you can provide evidence that the increase is linked to an impact on what matters to the organization (read CEO, CFO, etc.).  This could be financial, it could be innovation, it could be brand equity, it could be social good — whatever matters the most. When this linkage isn’t clear, engagement loses it’s meaning and it’s credibility as a viable business consideration.

My advice is to start your engagement discussions by first talking about what outcomes truly matter to the organization. Once clear on that, back your way into how employee behavior plays a key role in either achieving or derailing the creation of those outcomes.

Whatever ends up on that list becomes the foundation for your engagement definition. Armed with this information, you can now build your strategy for how to measure, management and cultivate engagement within your organization.

Intentional action is the key

My own takeaway from the panel was that while there seems to be a lot of angst pointed broadly at “employee engagement” today, it’s not engagement that’s the problem. Common sense tells us that employee engagement is good. Why wouldn’t you want your employees engaged in their work and in your organization (however you define it)?

It’s not engagement that’s the problem — the problem is how we are practicing and managing employee engagement. Employee engagement isn’t a survey or a score.  A survey is a tool. A score is number. Engagement is neither of those things.

The key to cracking the code on engagement is in the execution. We need to be much more intentional and deliberate about our work with engagement starting with getting clear on what we mean when we say engagement and how it impacts our business. Once you have the foundation beneath your feet, the next steps will become more clear.

Let go of what you think engagement is about and instead commit to what it’s about at your company. Then, engagement will start to really matter (and pay off).

This originally appeared on the Jason Lauristsen blog.

Jason Lauritsen is a talent strategist and innovator who will challenge you to think differently about talent and the workplace. A former corporate Human Resources executive, Jason is today the Director of Best Places to Work for Quantum Workplace where he leads a program that collects data from 2 million employees each year to identify, celebrate and promote some of the best workplaces in the world. He is the co-author of the book, Social Gravity and some people may know him as the tall, dancing guy with Talent Anarchy.
  • Jacque Vilet

    Agree with you Jason.   And  . . the issue is not applicable just to employee engagement.  It also is the same issue with wellness programs, management development programs, best practices,etc.  We all know intuitively these programs are good —- but sense they cost money, the company needs to have proof that they are worth the money spent.   That’s the cold hard fact of business.

  • http://twitter.com/dkwtechnik Mr. Ketter

    I agree with this article fully. I have spent years making engagement a business process instead of an afterthought. Engagement should be a core part of any business strategy. If there is no or minimal employee buy in, you are almost sure to fail. The engagement ,however, should start at the point of on-boarding and permeate daily work activities. The #1 way to accomplish this is through your intranet or better yet a private social network. With {s}hareCLOUD work becomes play and play becomes profit. What I am  really talking about is Work 2.0. I mean it is 2012 and social isn’t going away not even in the workplace. Embrace it.

  • Leigh Branham

    Jason, I appreciate this post. Interesting thought about it being OK for different organizations to define employee engagement differently.  I’m not so sure about that.  I believe we should be able to agree on a universal definition.  The one I like best comes from The Conference Board “A
    heightened emotional and intellectual connection that an employee has for
    his/her job, organization, manager, or coworkers that, in turn, influences
    him/her to apply additional discretionary effort to his/her work.”  This definition encompasses three critical concepts: the emotional vs. intellectual distinction, the fact that the connection or bond can be to one or more facets, and the critical concept of discretionary effort.  I’d be open to hearing your perspective about what part of this definition an organization might have an issue with or what concept might be missing.  I also like the eight elements of Employee Engagement as set forth by Macey et. al in their book, Employee Engagement: Feeling elements: urgency, focus, intensity, enthusiasm; Behavioral elements: persistence, proactivity, role expansion, and adapting to change.  These are more than a definition–they are the earmarks–how we know it when we see it. I think more disagreement comes into play when we try to define the drivers of engagement and that is the crucial part where organizations may differ.  In our book, Re-Engage, Mark Hirschfeld and I identified 6 universal drivers based on our analysis of 2.1 million engagement surveys, but several other authors present different drivers based on different research. Totally agree about the need to tie engagement to the desired business result.