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Why the phrase “Employee Engagement” shouldn’t exist

Employee Engagement Image Matt Broomhead

If you have read my Article “Why Change Management is an Oxymoron” then you will have discovered there are certain popular phrases in many business mid-managers’ lexicons. One such phrase is “Employee Engagement”. So to complement LinkedIn’s theme of #BeTheBoss let us explore this together.

Unlike the phrase “Change Management”, “Employee Engagement” is not an oxymoron. The phrase “Employee Engagement” shouldn’t actually exist. Please understand that I think it is great alliteration and for those of you that have attended my skills sessions or read my other articles, then you’ll probably know that I am partial to a little alliteration.

However, I would like to suggest there is something fundamentally mistaken with the phrase. I’d describe it as more than “The elephant in the room”. It is more like an African male Elephant squeezed into the “box room” of a three bed mid-sized semi-detached house.

The phrase “Employee Engagement” is like saying “a Fishing Fisher” or “a Driving Driver”. It seems to be stating the obvious and not something we should have to be telling people or “training/coaching” them to do. A bit like breathing. If I wrote an article on the benefits of taking your next breath, then you may wonder about the real value of taking the time to read it.

Why wouldn’t we be “engaging” with employees? We’re paying their salaries. Why else are they there? In fact, why on earth are you there if one of your top priorities is not to engage with them? It’s like a Fisher not fishing or a Farmer not farming.

As an aside, if you look online for a definition of “Employee”, then you’ll find “one employed by another usually for wages or salary and in a position below the executive level.

Isn’t it fascinating that in the definitions there are no initial references to output, results or achievement? Surely the primary purpose of an Employee is not to earn a wage. That is a by-product of the work that they produce, service they offer and value they add to the organisation.

Therefore I am suggesting the fundamental mistake with the phrase “Employee Engagement” is that all employees ought to be engaged. It is the core of their job role. The description should simply be “Employee”, because it should be presupposed that they are already engaged.

So why is “Employee Engagement” such a hot topic?

The real answer is “disengagement”. It has been said that around 80% of employees don’t like their jobs. If that is true then that is a serious amount of disengagement. It could be said that if an employee is not engaged, they are no longer an employee, but a liability and should be dealt with in an appropriate way.

Disengagement can happen for all sorts of reasons. Two examples are:

  • The employer hasn’t fully understood the person’s situation and why they are no longer “engaging” in their role.
  • The employer employees completely the wrong person in the first place with differing values. Maybe they thought the person might grow into the job. Perhaps they looked at what they had done for another employer instead of first checking what the person believed about their work; their clients and their honesty and ethics towards treating people.

What are the three reasons why we have a tendency to run into difficulties when employees become disengaged?

  1. The initial employment agreement is not clear when they start.
  2. The employment agreement is not updated regularly by both parties as the role inevitably changes over time.
  3. We don’t have a clear policy ourselves to deal with someone when they are breaching their agreement. Good companies will have a clear HR policy that is suitably tailored to the employees.

When disengagement occurs, unfortunately what sometimes arises is one party seems to take on a bullying stance. Either the employer starts stating “I’m your boss; You have to do what I say; You must do this or else” etc. Or just as challenging, the employee bully’s the employer with various tactics which tends to resort in mysterious sickness and they disappear for days or weeks.

In the vast majority of cases the cause is due to a lack of self-confidence from both parties:

  • The Employer because they’re not strong enough to deal with the employee; they feel guilty about the potential end result of the employee losing their income; and they have heard a few scare stories from employment tribunal lawyers.
  • The Employee having not taken responsibility for their own skill development, networks and alternative financial backup plan.

Ok. That was some of the difficulties that we may have experienced, but what are my suggestions for engaging with Employees?

The fundamentals to “Employee {engagement}“:

Listen to your Employees and talk to your Employees.

For the more astute, notice I didn’t write order, instruct or tell. I wrote talk.

Is that as easy as it sounds? Of course not. As with so many things it is simple, although not necessarily easy. But it’s useful to have something to aim for.

For those more advanced, let me put a little more meat on the bone by giving you seven ways to engage with the people in your team:

  1. As the leader of the organisation (whether you’re the chair of a committee or CEO of a FTSE 250) you have to have a clear vision and strategy of where you are taking the organisation and be able to articulate why you do what you do. What is your story that will resonate with them and inspire them to want to follow you down the path you’re taking the organisation. Most people want to be part of something that is bigger than themselves. Also remember to include in your communications the five fundamentals productive people need {see my article 5 fundamentals productive people want but rarely get – link at the end of this Article}.
  2. Listen to your team so you understand they are clear why they’re there and what their role is.
  3. Talk to them and express your vision and how you see it playing out.
  4. Develop a group of “ambassadors” that believe more passionately in what you want to achieve and use them as an influencing and feedback mechanism. These ambassadors can be from a variety of roles and teams. Their position/rank isn’t so important, but the one crucial criteria is that they are influencers within the organisation.
  5. Ask for your team’s ideas individually on how to implement as they may be better than yours.
  6. Continue to talk and listen to your team.
  7. Carry on talking and listening to your team.

You get the idea…

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