Engagement is one of those words we often hear, but probably don’t share a common understanding of its meaning. Not long ago, I brought up engagement during a discussion about setting goals and metrics and was immediately challenged to describe how it could be accurately measured.
In the virtual environment, terms such as “impressions”, “open rates”, “click through rates”, “time on page” and so forth are used as proxies for engagement. But do these get at the heart of the matter? They certainly describe stages of the sales funnel, but as any sales person knows, it’s the conversion that matters. Although attributed to a number of folks, including IBM’s Tom Watson, the phrase, “Nothing happens until someone sells something” seems appropriate here.
But what about the human, mushy soft side of things?
My daughter recently celebrated her first year of marriage; before she was married, she was engaged to her fiancé. Engagement, in this sense, takes on an entirely different meaning, and as a metaphor, gets at the notion of employee engagement. According to The New American Dictionary, the fourth definition of the word, “engage” means to “attract and hold”. This is the notion that points to employee engagement.
In the early 2000’s, I held a senior management position with a division of a large, Fortune 500 chemical processing enterprise. To the credit of the human resources director, the company was one of the early adopters of Gallop’s Q12 employee engagement survey. At the time, the idea of asking employees questions about the extent to which they were engaged at work was novel – at least for those of us on senior staff. I can recall the moment we discussed launching the survey as if it was yesterday: After having worked in a number of environments wherein it was clear the management team actually couldn’t care less what employees thought about their relationship to the corporation, the idea of using a scientific survey to understand such things was intriguing, to say the least.
Today, nearly twenty years later, a Google search of the term “employee engagement” brings-up a treasure trove of results. Gallop were the leaders, and have identified three tranches into which employees may be binned: engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged. An Engaged employee is the highest level. Generally speaking, these are the folks who – for a host of reasons – are the employees who are “giving their all” at work. Not Engaged employees are those who ensure they’re doing at least enough to get by, but are not impassioned about their work. Those in the Actively Disengaged bin are employees who are – literally – dragging down productivity by what they say and how they go about their work.
One of the most important – if not most important – responsibilities business leaders have is developing a culture wherein as many employees as possible are engaged in their work. Remember, engaged means to be attracted and held by what the employee is doing. In other words, the person is impassioned, not unlike an artist, with his or her work.
As a community of people, the folks working for a business are engaged when they are channeling their energies toward achieving the mission of the business. One of the simplest things to understand, yet more difficult thing to achieve is the creation of a “culture of engagement.” How this is accomplished is complex, but it starts with understanding that businesses are not machines, but living organisms comprised of human beings endowed with dignity and agency. In other words, the business leader cannot begin to fulfill his or her responsibility for creating a culture of engagement without first valuing the dignity and agency of the folks in his or her employ.
Employees will become engaged when they have a sense of their agency: they know their work fulfills some higher purpose and they have some control over how their work gets done. Starting the journey toward a high level of employee engagement starts when the business leader listens with empathy and uses what he or she hears from employees to make changes to the way the business runs. At a very basic level, this is a form of democratic control and demands a character trait every business leader ought to work hard to develop and refine.