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Aug 16, 2012

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.