The Dirty Little Secret About "Employee Engagement"

John Guaspari

The Dirty Little Secret About "Employee Engagement"

There is currently a lot of enthusiasm for the concept of employee engagement.  In large part this is because of substantial amounts of credible research showing a strong positive correlation between higher engagement levels and better business results.

The definition of engagement cited in each of these studies is (more or less) the following: “The extent to which an individual is moved to invest additional effort and energy in the tasks at hand.”  So when people are engaged, they have crossed a psychological threshold and are doing things they otherwise would not have done related to their work.

Since this seems like a pretty desirable outcome, the question becomes:  How can we get more people to cross that threshold?  Some valuable clues to the answer are revealed by dusting off an older term and making an assertion that will horrify my professional brethren: engagement is just a gussied-up way of saying “buy-in.”

So we have something that we want our people to buy (into)—the proposition that if they throw themselves more fully into their work, it will be of value to them.  Such value could take various forms: greater job security; increased opportunities for career advancement; additional financial remuneration; the psychic gratification that goes with being part of a more successful enterprise or from gaining a greater degree of mastery in one’s field.

Now let me make things even more horrifying for my brethren.  If we want people to buy (into) what we’re proposing, we’ve got some marketing to do.  If we were considering bringing out a new product to the marketplace, we’d start by asking some pretty fundamental questions:  Who are the customers we are trying to reach?  What matters to them?  What do they think is important?  Of most value?  We would pretty quickly come to realize that the marketplace is not a monolith, that it comprises a number of segments and that within each segment there are nuanced differences.  The same argument applies when we’re talking about employee buy-in (nee, engagement).

You may be thinking that the analogy breaks down at this point since customers have choices whereas employees do not.  But I’d remind you that of course employees have choices.  In the limit, the choice is whether to stay in your employ or look elsewhere for gainful work.  Even without taking such a draconian step as changing jobs, though, employees still have the choice as to whether or not to invest their discretionary energy and effort:  "Should I stay late to finish my work on The Penske Report?  Or should I go home in time to have dinner with the family?" While they may be making such choices subconsciously, they are making them, and it’s those choices that determine your business’ level of employee engagement.

Your effectiveness vis-à-vis engagement begins with the recognition that engagement has to do with tapping into your employees’ discretionary energy.  By definition, this is energy over which they have sovereignty.  And that means spending more time focusing on “What will move them?” before firing up too many action steps on your project plan. 

It’s just Marketing 101.