Getting under the skin of ‘engagement’

What does it say about a concept when there’s little or no consensus on what it means – even among the folks who are supposedly at the forefront of fostering it? So it is with ‘engagement’…

  • For some, in reality, engagement is little or nothing more than a sexy new wrapper for the same old activity – a slightly more outcomes-focused badge for internal communication.
  • For some it’s more of a process – the alignment of the organisation’s vision, strategy and goals with those of the individuals who make it up.
  • For some it’s a philosophy – a synonym for ‘involvement’ and the desire to bring greater democracy to decision-making in organisations.
  • For others still, it’s pure outcome – an individual psychological state, the sum total of one’s gut feelings about one’s relationship with an organisation (effectively a slightly less crass way of referring to people’s level of intrinsic motivation).

Taking succour from the ambiguity, rather than decrying it, I tend to lean towards the latter definition – not least because seeing engagement as subjective and context-specific serves as an important reminder to ask questions, rather than leap to prescribing solutions (e.g. What does engagement mean to your organisation? What would more of it look like in terms of the business outcomes you seek? What, from the wide range of tools and approaches we could pluck from our arsenal, should we be deploying to support delivery of that outcome?).

Engagement shouldn’t be seen as a one-size-fits-all deal – either in definition or in practice. As anyone with the most rudimentary grasp of behavioural economics or complex adaptive systems will tell you, the chance that human beings (you know – real people with a heartbeat and free will) will respond predictably, en masse, to any given intervention, in the way you intend, is slim to anorexic*.

And yet…

An entire industry has been spawned by the false premise that engagement is a universal ‘thing’ that can be objectively and quantitatively measured – no concessions to context or cultural differences; nor to the fact that, while there is an obvious positive correlation between well-motivated people and corporate performance, the relationship between communication and engagement is far from being directly causative.

In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and go so far as to say that communication has little or no direct influence over engagement. The latter, IMHO, is far more shaped by the messages implicit in strategy, systems and culture – the opportunities, as Dan Pink would put it, to build a sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose – than it is in any messages explicitly communicated.

When you think about it, this should be obvious. An employee doesn’t start a new employment relationship disengaged; and the extent to which they remain engaged (or become disengaged) over time will never be the product of communication alone. It will be the extent to which those communications are congruent or incongruent with their day-to-day experiences of life in the organisation – the extent to which the promise that Company X will be a great place to realise one’s career aspirations (whatever those may be) is actually matched by reality.

Unpalatable though this appears to be to some died-in-the-wool comms pros, this dictates that you can’t separate comms management from good business management period – having the nous and the chutzpah to get involved in (and, dare I say it, even seek to shape) conversations about strategy, systems, processes, visible leadership behaviours etc. as ‘surface manifestations’ of organisational culture. For, if you don’t, you’ve more or less guaranteed that your beautifully written prose will fly in the face of said reality and, rather than being seen as an authentic reflection of an organisation’s purpose, proposition and positioning, it will instead appear as vacuous rhetoric.

My learned fellow 55-minute guide author, Geoff Barbaro, sums it up thus in a conversation over on the CommScrum LinkedIn group:

“Technology is showing us that networks of individuals hold the power of communication, and networks are no respecters of the employee/customer/stakeholder distinctions. When we talk about [internal comms] or [employee engagement] or whatever, what we are really talking about should be organisational management (or leadership), not stuff that happens within bounded walls.”

Amen to that, Geoff!

__________________________

* If you doubt the difference between how we think we make decisions and how we actually make them (and you’re based in the UK) check out last night’s Horizon programme on BBC2, featuring two brilliant Daniels – Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winning author of ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ and Dan Ariely, author of ‘Predictably Irrational’ (both fabulous reads if you can find the time).

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