Employee Engagement is not just for…. 

I had an interesting conversation with someone from an American university recently about employee engagement. The questioner wanted to know how we should go about measuring the success of the approach and was quite taken aback when I said it was easy. Just look at the bottom line. If company performance over at least several metrics wasn’t improving, then employee engagement wasn’t working either. Full stop.

After fifteen minutes of incredulous probing, I began to realise that, despite the undoubted impact of the MacLeod report, people still don’t get it. I have been working full time in the world of employee engagement for well over forty years now, initially as a line manager and for the past fifteen as an advisor. When I first embarked on this very radical (at the time) approach in 1976, my motivation was certainly not about improving morale, making life more interesting for employees or some fluffy, social engineering project. I did it then because I had to dramatic improve the performance of the operation I was running otherwise it would close. 400 jobs would disappear, including mine.

I repeated the process several times thereafter, each with the same objective and generally the same success. Eventually I became convinced that employee engagement, geared to the competitiveness agenda facing every company, was the quickest, cheapest and safest route to high performance. What about, my interviewer asked, morale, involvement, feeling valued, enhanced esteem and improved mutual respect?  I replied that these are all very welcome by-products of employee engagement and you can have a very high confidence that they will all be transformed if the approach works. But they are not the criteria to judge success. They are consequences, not objectives. I don’t think I convinced him.

As passionate advocate of this deviation from the usual directive approach to management, I was delighted when I first encountered Nita and David in 2008. I became rapidly convinced that these two prescient and remarkable people would light a fire under British business. The publication of “Engaging for Success” in 2009 became a beacon in my mind. I still carry around the dog- eared copy given to me by the authors and constantly refer to it.

Nevertheless, if I look at what has been achieved in recent years in the context of the lofty aspirations of the report, I would have to say it has been disappointing. I have seen so many encouraging transformations wither on the vine very quickly due to management turnover, changing events or basic complacency. Likewise, the take up of employee engagement, despite the powerful arguments supporting the case, is still abysmally low.

I think the engagement industry needs to understand the reasons behind this. I would suggest:

employee engagement needs to be sold principally as a means of significantly improving performance. Done correctly it can be absolutely transformational and that should be the target. It should not be sold as a happy-clappy, old fashioned, social -engineered initiative designed to make us all feel better. This may be laudable but it will not wash in today’s tough world, especially post Covid 19.

– employee engagement needs to be driven by a huge change in the leadership/management paradigm currently seen in most companies. The risk with employee engagement to the ego or reputation of senior management is sadly not acceptable to most. Many managers believe change is vital to everybody, bar them. Managing Directors fundamentally changing their approach to people management are rare birds indeed.  Directive management is easy and unchallenging, if usually ineffective. Focussing on motivating 24/7 is difficult and occasionally frustrating. However, if management will not change, then neither will the underlying culture

-employee engagement is as complex as a major IT project. Winging it, as so many do, is simply not enough, especially when one gets to the maintenance and refreshment stage. Employee Engagement is a serious business. It needs to be planned, constantly re-invigorated and led from the top.

I fear that the post corona virus world is going to be dominated once again by the directive firefighters characteristic of industry in the 1960s. This will be a tragedy as engaging management can achieve so much more. Perhaps if government could take a lead and introduce it into some of its measurement blighted services like the NHS, local government or education. Now wouldn’t that be interesting!

Author Bio: Prof John J Oliver OBE, Team Enterprise Solutions

Photo Credit: William Iven on Unsplash

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