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Defining and Measuring Employee Engagement

I was among a cast of hundreds invited to the QEII conference centre yesterday to bear witness to part of the launch of Engage for Success, the UK based movement centred on the phenomenon that has become known as employee engagement. It’s no secret that I’m not totally bought into employee engagement, whatever that might be (and more of that later), and for sure I think there are better ways to work than many of those currently in play, hence my interest I guess. Vitally for me, yesterday was a great chance to catch up with some friends I’d not seen for a while and say hi to a few new faces also.

We were first addressed by Nita Clarke and David MacLeod who together have co –chaired this work since Peter Mandelson (remember him?) lent his support to the Engaging for Success report published in 2009. Nita and David talked about the build up from this report to the present day. Lots of work has gone into documenting so called evidence of engagement, creating momentum around engagement, and the questions left hanging were, so where is it now, and where’s it heading?

Up next to help answer these questions were Archie Norman and Tanith Dodge, both of whom I’ll come back to in a future post. For those of you keen to get a sense of Archie and Tanith’s talks now – please take a look at the #E4S storify. The reason why I want to come back to more of this later is that there are some fundamentals I am stuck on.

Defining Engagement

Engage for Success, hereafter referred to by its Twitter handle #E4S, asserts that employee engagement is, ‘a workplace approach designed to ensure that employees are committed to their organisation’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organisational success, and are able at the same time to enhance their own sense of well-being’. You can read more about what employee engagement means to #E4S at their website.

Dictionaries define engagement in a number of ways, including:

1. The act of engaging or the state of being engaged.

2. Betrothal.

3. Something that serves to engage; a pledge.

4. A promise or agreement to be at a particular place at a particular time.

5.

a. Employment, especially for a specified time.

b. A specific, often limited, period of employment.

6. A hostile encounter; a battle.

7. The condition of being in gear.

There are things that interest me in these dictionary definitions much more than the rather dry offering put forward by #E4S. These definitions collectively speak to me of commitment, presence (and by that I mean really being there, not just turning up), love, struggle (hey nobody said it was easy right?), and a sense of phase, something we shift in and out of. Truth is – the real simultaneous joy and pain of engagement is its unwillingness to be defined. Personally, I love that shifting, blurry sense of engagement, and I long for a time when we can just be more comfortable with some vagueness around it.

Measuring Engagement

Apparently, 1/3rd of UK employees are engaged at work. Who are these people? Where do they work? Is it the same 1/3rd every day (so help the rest of us eh), and can we turn them on and off? We also have a trust deficit – whereby 70% of UK workers don’t trust their management, yet we somehow trust them to give an accurate answer to this question?

I think that engagement can exist, and where it does so, it is quite fluid. As such I do not believe it is measurable. Here I find myself at odds with #E4S who say that ‘despite there being some debate about the precise meaning of employee engagement there are three things we know about it: it is measurable; it can be correlated with performance; and it varies from poor to great.

There’s a neat video on the #E4S website – and there’s a killer line in it that says, ‘I am not a human resource, I’m a human being’. Amen to that, music to my ears. Organisations are full of people. We are not machines, and beyond our height and weight we can’t be measured, at least not in any meaningful way. Charles Handy has studied management for years and his observations and studies show us that people at all levels in a business think that they are connected with and understand their teams, and simultaneously their bosses do not understand them. We are wonderfully ‘all over the place’ like that, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

I’ll be back soon with more reflections on the day, particularly with regard to some of what Archie Norman had to say. For now though, if you’d like to add anything to the discussion on definition and measurement, or even just throw rocks at me, I’d love to hear from you.

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