What employee engagement is not

Employee engagement has been buzzing around for the past 20 years and has so many interpretations it is easy to get a little confused by the topic. Employee engagement is not a perk, a benefit scheme or some new initiative. It is a measure in time, a pulse, a score, to determine how engaged or disengaged your people are. It will change over time, after an announcement, before a restructure, or depending on what season you are in.

It is not a meaningless number though. It can be a valuable piece of insight that helps you to understand your business performance, customer satisfaction and your culture.

The engagement score is an output of the employee experience you provide your people. 

We were first introduced to the term in an article in the 1990 Academy of Management Journal by William A. Kahn. Kahn explored the Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work (PDF). He suggested that people are involved in their work at three levels – physically, cognitively, and emotionally. However, employees may be engaged at fewer levels, or even disengaged or actively disengaged. 

We have all been disengaged at some point. Often it is the catalyst to make a change in our careers. Where once you may have been keen to input ideas, make friendships and socialise with colleagues, and go that extra mile for personal and work satisfaction, your disengaged self was stuck. You still turned up and did the work every day but stuck to your specified hours at work. You stopped getting involved in activities beyond the job, stopped volunteering for more responsibility, adding just enough value to get the pay check and avoid the capability management process. The popular term today is quiet quitting and most people have done that.

A Gallup study states that “the behaviours of highly engaged business units result in 21% greater profitability.” But you know this to be true. When you are engaged, your personal performance increases. You do more, you care more, you enjoy it more. Your colleagues are no different.


Focus on experience:

Your engagement score is the output of employee experience (EX). The experience is what you should focus on and not just the HR department - everyone.


The first question to ask your leadership team is about their beliefs about EX. Do they believe that EX should be built around the work, or whether the work is an outcome of the EX. The belief system will determine how the leadership team strategises around EX.


There is a shift towards the latter approach, especially in a post pandemic era. 


Productive work as an outcome of a positive EX means that EX comes first. 


The foundations

Ensure the environment, culture, and conditions have been met so enable employees to be willing, able, and ready to engage. This means they understand the strategy, vision and purpose of the work that they do and believe in it. They have the skills (or are able to gain them) to deliver what is required, and they have the space to deliver (Clear goals and priorities). Most of all, they feel empowered and trusted to deliver the work safely.


Ensure employee engagement is not another gimmick or a new initiative to add to managers responsibilities.

Instead of launching bright new shiny initiatives, integrate and change in an evolutionary manner. Update existing working practices, integrate into existing performance management processes, train managers in EX, coaching styles, human motivation and scale up reward and praise. Start having meaningful one to ones, career conversations and update programmes and plans to support the outputs. Monitor the impact, encourage daily interactions between managers and their people that are positive and forward focused, and encourage teamwork, friendships and a sense of belonging.


Use the engagement score in the right way.

Use standard questions that ask the right questions each time you send out a survey. You can add on extras as an when needed, but make sure the standard questions measure the right things. And ask them regularly and throughout the year. Look for trends and track against the current climate. Add the measure as part of your organisational objectives or KPI's. Then create a strategy that will actually positively impact the scores over time. The engagement score is a sum of many parts, so one gimmick or initiative won't solve your issues alone. 


Assign a budget

If this matters to you, make sure you have a monetary and resource budget that reflects that. Put budget where it will have a positive impact, and assess the return on investment. Investing in training and development is wise, but only if it addresses the skills deficiency highlighted in the engagement scores. Buying table tennis or games consoles for the canteen might seem like a good idea, but if people don't have time for breaks, you are throwing money at the wrong thing. Investing in a performance management software platform might sound sensible, but only if everyone understands how to have a meaningful one to one or feels safe to converse with their managers.


Ask your people

The survey is one approach but focusing on EX means really asking your people about what are the blocks and barriers to engagement and include them in the solution creation. Never assume you know what people want. Actively engage via forums, team meetings, focus groups, surveys and one to ones. Employee experience is not done to people. It is something you do with them. And remember, you are one of the people too. 

If you really want to know where to focus on first...

Ask your disgruntled colleagues. 


We all know who will moan about the parking, run ideas into the ground, nay say any new initiative. These people not only have influence, but they are also disengaged. They have so many answers to the questions you have. Now is the time to engage with them. They may focus on low level issues, the hygiene factors, but spend time building trust so you can get to the real reasons for they apathy.


And with your most engaged employees...

Ask them what you are doing right. There are conditions at play that are keeping them engaged. Find out what is already working and make it best practice across the business. 


And for everybody else...

Engage, communicate, inspire, reconnect, and lead.

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