Jason Lauritsen, HRExaminer.com Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

Jason Lauritsen, HRExaminer.com Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

Regular readers of HR Examiner have gotten a heavy dose of opinions in recent months, labeling employee engagement as “voodoo” and worse. And let’s be honest, there’s a lot of nonsense out there about engagement. But to take the broad position that engagement is “snake oil” isn’t just off base, it’s wrong.

What exactly is Employee Engagement?

The discussion about engagement gets muddy because people talk about it as if it’s a concrete, universally accepted norm of organizational measurement. It’s not. Engagement is a made-up construct, a label created by academics and consultants as a way to describe employee perceptions about the work environment. A single accepted definition of employee engagement doesn’t exist. Hence, a lot of confusion.

However, there’s a common thread underlying every description of engagement I’ve found. It goes something like this:

If the work environment creates a positive experience for employees, then employees are more likely to be committed, favorable, and optimistic about their work.  This increases the probability of better performance (and other desirable outcomes like retention) that the organization cares about. 

That is the value proposition of employee engagement. I could cite statistics from various studies that show strong correlations between certain measures of engagement and financial performance, but that would only incite a debate over correlation versus causation. And that would just give us a headache.

Instead, let’s talk about the why of employee engagement. The underlying idea driving engagement programs is very similar to that of customer research done by our marketing counterparts. If a customer has a consistently great experience with a product, they’re more likely to buy it again and become an advocate. Good customer experience equals better customer. Isn’t this largely the same thing we’re attempting with employee engagement programs?

Is Discretionary Effort a Con? 

It seems to me that some are making the argument that engagement is a Machiavellian attempt by big brother to squeeze more out of each labor dollar by calling it “discretionary effort.” I suppose if we view corporate management as money-grubbing pirates who are out to screw us over at every turn, then I can see how one might be pretty cynical about the pursuit of discretionary effort.

If you instead frame the leaders of an organization as coaches trying to lead a winning team, maybe the idea of discretionary effort feels more appropriate. As the parent of a 17-year-old son who loves to play sports, we’ve been through a lot of sporting seasons.” As the parent of a 17-year-old son who loves to play sports, we’ve been through a lot of sporting seasons. The message he’s received from coaches over the years is almost always the same: “If you want to get better and earn a spot on the team, it’s about going above and beyond.” More practice, more focus, more effort on the floor or the field. Every coach on the planet expects and coaches for this extra (or discretionary) effort on the part of their athletes.

Are the athletes being conned?

In the corporate environment, discretionary effort can look a lot of different ways. It doesn’t have to mean long hours or being a workaholic. Personally, I look for it to show up as passion and courage. I want the discretionary application to come from the heart and mind.  For me, engagement is about creating an environment where people are in love their work and the people they do it with. If I can pull that off, my team gives more. Not because they have to, but because they want to. Is that a bad thing for the employee?

How to make Engagement Pay Off?

It’s an easy target to point out what’s wrong with current HR practices. I’ve thrown my fair share of stones at the likes of performance appraisals, policy manuals, and other practices. But, highlighting what’s wrong without suggesting a solution isn’t particularly helpful.

So, whether you’re heavily invested in employee engagement or contemplating making the investment, here’s a checklist for approaching engagement in a way that will yield results for your organization.

  1. Get clear on your definition of engagement. Remember, there isn’t a universal definition of engagement. It’s going to look different at every organization. What does engagement look like at your organization? Grapple with this question. Get clear. Write it down. Socialize it.
  2. Articulate how engagement will directly impact achievement of company goals. Engagement efforts will quickly be labeled as “touchy feely” HR initiatives if you don’t do this work up front. Ensure the leaders of your organization understand this linkage or it will never become a priority.
  3. Make it about more than a survey.  Measurement is important, maybe even vital, when working to improve an organization. And surveys are powerful tools for measurement. But, the biggest trap that well-intentioned HR pros fall into with engagement is allowing it to be defined as a survey. If I ask your leaders, “Is your organization committed to engaging employees,” what would they say? If the first thing out of their mouth is about a survey, you have a lot of work to do. Refer back to items 1 and 2 on this list and start there.
  4. Be vigilant in who you hire to help you.  There are a lot of vendors out there who are selling engagement solutions. And like every business, there are the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you are clear on your definition of engagement and what business goals you’re working to achieve, you will be able to find a partner whose approach aligns to yours. And be very wary of anyone who tells you they have the single right way to measure engagement or a silver bullet program for creating engagement. Those things don’t exist and it’s how the practice ends up being labeled as “snake oil.”

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