What Is Employee Engagement? Here’s How It’s a Lot Like Marriage

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Jun 6, 2014
This article is part of a series called Classic TLNT.

Editor’s Note: Sometimes readers ask about past TLNT articles. That’s why we republish a Classic TLNT post every Friday.

What’s the No. 1 most helpful (or most heard) relationship advice? I reckon it’s to remind people, “You can’t change the other person.”

And this is wise advice, indeed. Too many relationships fail because one person thinks they can change the other person’s annoying or downright disturbing habits or mannerisms over time.

This simply isn’t true. One person cannot change another.

But don’t worry; this isn’t turning into an Agony Aunt blog (or, for my American readers, a “Dear Abby” blog). While I’m sure the vast majority of you agree with this advice, many of you also likely think you can do something (create a program, start an initiative) to engage your employees.

This, too, simply isn’t true. An engagement program (and certainly not an engagement survey) will ever engage employees. But, much like building a relationship based on mutual trust and appreciation, you can create a workplace culture and environment in which employees choose to engage.

What brought all of this to mind? An engagement battle going on amongst several bloggers I regularly follow and admire.

Happy employees, engaged employees are very different

It started with William Tincup’s post on Fistful of TalentThe Long Con of Engagement, in which he says (ellipses are original to the content):

Do me a favor … for just one moment today … think critically about engagement. Do you really want happy employees? Please stress test the logic … what if they are happy but they suck? Do you still want them in your organization? What’s more important to your particular organization: happiness or competence? … Lastly, I’m tired of people pimping out engagement as if it were some super elixir that fixed everything that ails us. It doesn’t. Truth hurts sometimes.”

I agree with William on this, with one very important caveat. Happiness and engagement are two very different things.

Happy employees (like satisfied ones) could be so because you offer Starbucks in the café. But truly engaged employees are voluntarily working harder every day because they want to, and they’re working hard on projects and objectives that matter to you.

Engagement is not a program “done” to employees

Then Paul Hebert chimed in on his i2i blog, pointing out:

The problem is that most companies still think of engagement as something they ‘do to’ employees or in even worse cases, ‘do for‘ employees.  And engagement isn’t something employees “give” employers. … If you want engagement – the real kind – make it a dialogue. Both parties give, both parties get. It’s not about what you want or what the company wants. Engagement is about what is right for the both of us. No one was ever engaged by being handed everything they ever wanted. No one is engaged when they get absolutely nothing they need.”

I also agree with Paul. No “program” will ever deliver what both employees and employers need. But everyone benefits from a strong culture of recognition in which everyone wants to engage. (Be sure to click through to Paul’s post for an excellent Dilbert cartoon parodying engagement in its worst form.)

Engagement is not a “definition”

Then Jason Lauritsen chimed in (here at TLNT) to point out that we can’t even agree on what thedefinition of engagement is, much less how to go about creating an environment where engagement can happen. His advice is spot on:

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.”

An engaging culture is possible – if we want it

Finally, Jessica Lee (again on Fistful of Talent), boiled this all down to the real question:

Why can’t we – especially us HR and recruiting types – simply believe in a better vision for work and bring that vision to life for our organizations? Even if it means we slowly chip away toward that diamond in the rough. Engagement. Not sheer, pure ecstasy for the work we do. Not an ultra-scientific thing that we hypothesize, test, re-test and analyze. But something else.”

It’s that “something else” that I believe all the employee engagement pundits are trying to get to. Yes, as William Tincup says, “work is work.”

But it doesn’t have to be soul crushing. We might not enjoy every aspect of what we do every day we do it. But we should, at least, believe in why we’re doing it, appreciate the people we’re doing it with, and enjoy the culture in which we’re able to work.

What say you? Where do you fall on “engagement?”

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

This article is part of a series called Classic TLNT.
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