What exactly is “employee engagement?”

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There seem to be articles on this topic going back to 2010 and even before that. I’m not going to link them. There’s also probably half a million supposed “thought leadership” pieces on what exactly employee engagement is, with a newer term — “employee experience” — coming in periodically.

You’re talking about these terms now having been around for 9–10 years, if not longer. I still do not think many people (still predominantly men) who make decisions in companies understand what these things mean or why they are important. So let’s see if we could try that out a little bit.

What are some conventional definitions of “engagement?”

The one most know and understand is the idea of committing to marry someone. The whole reason “here’s my rock” pics pop on Instagram is (a) people like to gossip and debate on the potential value of nice things that women wear and (b) it’s a major life moment in that it’s a commitment for life, ideally. (My first attempt at this, which was done before a Motown-themed party in 2012, did not actually work out long-term, but in most cases, the “engagement” implies “commitment long-term.”)

OK, so that’s one definition: commitment. I think that applies to work too.

Other words I think people would associate with “engagement:”

  • Fun
  • Passionate
  • Active
  • On-task
  • Caring

So, broadly speaking, it would seem to be an idea about your employees being committed to, and passionate/active about, your organization.

So is that often reality?

Absolutely not.

What gets in the way?

Work is inherently transactional. You do something, you get paid. Most people would not be at their current job if the job stopped paying them. You ever get fired and say “Hey, well, I know you’re gonna stop paying me but I’d like to come back on Monday because I’m totally engaged in what we do here and I want to be a part of it?” You think that’s ever happened? Probably once or twice in human history, if that. Usually when the salary spigot is off, the engagement is off.

Work is a transaction in that way.

For “engagement” to come in, you need to make it transformative. That’s a big, big leap that many companies never can make.

Let’s use the obvious analogy: Look, sometimes in your 20s you might go out and sleep with someone randomly. Is this good/healthy? Not necessarily. But what is it, really? It’s a transaction. Based on the context of a night or a week, you need something, they needed something, and the transaction occurs as a result. Is it “transformative?” No. Even if the sex itself is mind-bending, it’s still likely a one-off. There’s no transformation there.

Now, if you propose to someone (“engagement”), ideally there’s transformation there, because you’re committing to a lot more than one sloppy Friday night.

So, while I know it’s fraught to compare personal relationships to work ones, how do couples go from “one night stand” to “on one knee?” It’s largely through shared experiences, trust, time together, etc. We all know some of the basic building blocks, and building-destroyers, of relationships.

But companies are often very short-term-focused, which means these elements needed to move from “transaction” to “transformation” are not always easily applied. That’s the core problem.

What would an employee need to feel “engaged?”

I would say, off the top of my dome:

That’s the big list. If you have half of these, I would think you’d stay at a job longer than 3–4 years. Wouldn’t you?

OK, so why should executives care about this?

The big list on this one would be:

  • Constantly back-filling and hiring costs money
  • You lose institutional knowledge
  • You stress out your remaining people and increase their workloads
  • People generally don’t do their best work when they’re bored or feel ignored, etc.
  • You’re leaving money on the table

The big elephant in this boardroom is the term itself. “Engagement” is very fluffy and does not reside on specific lines of a P&L or balance sheet. People who can make decisions in companies of over 20 employees don’t care about fluffy terms, and as they rose up, they learned to value-signal about their work ethic. They think they got to their perch because of:

  • Sweat equity
  • Never backing down
  • Killer instinct
  • Relationship skills
  • Long nights

In their minds, no one ever talked to them about “engagement” or asked them if they felt “engaged.” The only time they probably had that conversation with another man was when they asked for their wife’s hand, ya know? “Engagement” is not a work concept to them; it’s a personal concept that happened before marriage and kids.

And when something isn’t a work concept, where do you kick it? HR, baby. Let them have it.

So how would you define “engagement?”

If you made it this far, what’s your definition? Leave it in the comments or email me if that’s easier.

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