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  • Neil Keeler

The paradox of employee engagement: a uniquely personalised corporate response?

Updated: Dec 4, 2018


Engagement: a cure all?

In these challenging times, where scarcer resources are being sought to improve organisational performance there is an understandably much stricter expectation of 'academic rigour' to strongly evidence the case for any OD intervention.


The 'hard'/tangible metrics are where we commonly start from in OD. Knowing what we aim to impact upon, built upon a hypothesis of how we will intervene to improve that issue, and a clear understanding of how we will measure that improvement.


These steps acknowledge the scientific origins of robust OD practice, yet most of these principles are stretched to breaking point when they are applied to employee engagement in an organisation. When David MacLeod & Nita Clarke published their report into employee engagement in the UK in 2009 they noted over 50 different definitions of engagement, it's likely even higher still now.


A uniformly accepted definition of employee engagement (hereafter referenced just as engagement) is still missing, leaving it possibly best described as a 'hypothetical construct'.


A construct receiving renewed challenge from the increased application of evidence based practice within the HR profession. The challenge of employee engagement developing credibility lies in this lack, still, of clear agreement on exactly what engagement is.


No scientific hypothesis can be applied to explore engagement whilst it remains so subjectively defined. Measuring 'it' when 'it' has 50 differing definitions seems a fundamental challenge to applying evidence based practice? So what do we do?

For most OD practitioners I suspect the pragmatist/activist trait is going to kick in and you may well apply the same strategy that the Engage for Success authors did. Skirt around it.


By side stepping being tied down to the issue of forming a watertight and academically accepted, indisputably clear definition for engagement (I am para-phrasing here) they progressed much activity.


You might well share some of their beliefs (I do) that:

  • Even if you can't define engagement scientifically, it's really clear when engagement is present, or not present. 'It's such a 'universal truth' lets just press on' is an understandable reaction.

  • Engagement represents a fundamentally simple principle of business - your people are the core driver of your organisational success.

  • Engagement (whatever it is) is a 'keystone' to high performance outcomes (e.g. productivity, sales, customer satisfaction, effectiveness and efficiency - ultimately profitability) which can all be measured across a number of organisational metrics.

  • Engaging practices can be replicated, adopted/adapted in other organisations, for their (& ultimately the country's) clear benefit.

  • Progressing 'this' would be good for everyone so why delay? The individual worker, teams, the organisations, customers and the overall country as a whole would benefit by progressing whatever definition of engagement worked for you, the lower than average productivity of UK workers needed action after all.

So does it matter that we still don't have a uniform and rigorously tested definition of what engagement really is? Should we accept if it isn't 'snake oil' and there is something to 'engagement' might there not be a singular definition of it?


Engagement, is perhaps an extremely personal recipe for every member of an organisation. Any attempt to 'homogenise' a definition would be pointless. Should the answer to 'what is the best definition of engagement?' simply be - the one that most closely meets your needs and serves your purpose best?

"Cures downsizing, red tape fatigue and acute micro-management"

Can an OD professional still aim to increase 'engagement' in their organisation, from such a confused starting point?


Unless you are desperately seeking to resolve this complex challenge (clarifying a singular academically accredited definition), I would recommend adopting the same 'side step' chosen by Engage for Success. I know that's a 'cop out', but bear with me...


From my experience I suspect if we all had a singular, uniform, accurate and robust definition of employee engagement, most organisations would dismiss it and seek to generate their own one! As we are all the same in believing we are unique.


I feel in many ways the more you personalise your engagement strategy (to whatever definition you choose that to be), the better, just make sure it really works for your people and your organisation.


That is perhaps the point of all engagement approaches it's about identifying what constitutes the most engaging blend of ingredients for your people, at this moment, to best achieve your goals.


Apply evidence based practice and critical thinking to those issues that you can influence, those that are clearly within your grasp e.g.:

  • What organisational issues or pressures will have greatest impact on your organisation now and in the next year or two?

  • How might you want to influence, manage, reduce or negate those issues?

  • How might they change and is it important to monitor them during that?

  • The 'engagement model' you currently use - is it 'robust'? What academic validity does it have?

  • What questions do you use and why?

  • How do you benchmark results, with whom and with what rationale?

Engagement primarily emerged from those selling a wide variety of surveys and methods to measure employee satisfaction ultimately becoming their own model of engagement. Other sources uncovering engagement phenomena were the management consultancies and performance improvement specialists commonly brought into to develop action plans following the survey or to increase performance generally.


Both understandably began with less scientific rigour, often based upon a lot of phenomenological evidence, (they saw 'the good stuff' that they defined as 'engagement') from an analysis of the business performance and the impact of applying their own model/definition to influence and improve.


This environmental or situational evidence remains as the majority source of engagement evidence and should be treated with caution as essentially the lowest quality of evidence. That discovery lead approach perhaps also suggests that each version of engagement really is unique.

In 2009 I re-designed Southend Borough Councils 'Employee Opinion Survey', on the very same day 'Engaging for Success' was published. Nervous moments for sure until I got hold of a copy! That redesign was based on my beliefs that we needed to identify our own version, I felt:

  • Questions weren't the answer! Better questions would get you nearer better answers though - be clear on what answers you seek and why you seek them?

  • Positive engaging outcomes fuel engagement - action must follow at every level, make what you do 'speak' loudest for the process to have integrity.

  • A 'worthy' mission and clear vision excite and align engagement.

  • Leadership behaviours ignite, nourish, or extinguish engagement.

  • Engagement has to be owned everywhere, by everyone, all the time.

  • Engagement is a feeling in you, predominantly influenced by your relationship with your immediate line manager.

Look for the outcomes to evidence you really are progressing. Focus groups to validate or prioritise your questions can be highly effective and also let people understand some of the rationale behind the others that you do ask. Also they can delve deeper into key issues and identify some champions for leading actions who have an interest.


Triangulate survey responses with organisational health check data. That might be attendance/absence figures, incidences of conflict, 'churn', productivity or customer experiences. Use the data you do have to best effect.


If you really wish to own your peoples engagement then you must obviously identify the most compelling and robust evidence that proves that case is being achieved, that your engagement strategy is delivering for you.


I'd involve them in 'the doing' and encourage them to tell you 'how are we doing in this?'.


In writing this I have reflected on whether there would be any real benefit for the OD practitioner to have a clear cut and rigorous pre-prepared engagement definition, an 'answer' to the challenge of 'what is engagement?'.

On reflection I feel that answering that question with any clarity, may very well be missing the point.


In some ways the proof of your commitment to engagement is in the commitment you show to unravelling exactly that question. Overcoming the paradox of being clear on what would engage hundreds, maybe thousands of your people, on a personal and individualised level in a 'corporate' i.e. collective solution. It's the effort to endeavour to pursue an answer, not having the answer.


Overcoming that paradox is my definition of engagement. Good luck in your search for your own recipe.

I am conscious I haven't considered any of the methods now available for measuring whatever your definition of engagement is, including 'always on' options so I will return to that in a follow up blog.


I am also conscious that the critical element of your engagement strategy is what you do to improve engagement, actions and interventions, I can see that would gain from a dedicated blog too - so more to follow.


I would be interested to hear a little more from anyone using an 'always on' engagement option, please pop me a line if you can spare some thoughts on how you find using it?

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