Simon Terry

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Stop the Machine. Engagement is Human

Employee engagement is a human psychological process. Stop treating it like an industrial machine.

Introduce a target into a modern management workplace and you will introduce a standard set of mechanical efficiency models to achieve that target. Employee engagement is a classic example.

Engagement is human

When we stop and reflect, it is obvious that employee engagement is a human process. Our engagement with our work is the psychological outcome of complex series of elements, including purpose, the work we do, its rewards both monetary and psychological, our relationships with others and much more. Everyone’s engagement outcomes are driven by their unique psychological and social needs. Our engagement is influenced by opportunities offered to us to experience states that people desire across all the domains of their lives like autonomy, purpose and mastery. Engagement is an integral outcome of our connection to others in the workplace and in the surrounding community.

Stop the Engagement Machine

Except that is not how the industrial engagement machine works. Search the internet for ‘engagement drivers’ and you will find lots of great advice on how to treat people as machines for generating engagement as an end in itself. The focus on drivers leads to a focus on top-down engagement plans. These plans measure and relentlessly focus on transactionally moving the drivers. The failure of these plans to shift engagement begins with the disconnect from the daily leadership interactions in the organisation.  

Further, the plans fail to take a systemic view of what influences engagement.  Clarifying the connection of my work to strategy (a substitute for purpose in many engagement models) will only worsen my engagement if the rest of the system frustrates my efforts to achieve these now more important strategic outcomes. When my leader then dismisses those strategic outcomes to foster their own agenda, all improvement in engagement is lost.

Because we have an industrial mindset we can become more focused on the measures than the actual process. Consider the averaging that is built into most engagement surveys. Does it allow for the fact that individual outcomes matter and that a few highly engaged employees can deliver an enormous impact for the organisation? Averages also foster initiatives tackling the averages, over individual conversations.  

Industrialising a psychological process weakens the focus on engagement. I have seen senior managers sit around discussing their engagement scores as if the black box of engagement is a mystery. These leaders expressed aloud the wish that it was a more transparent machine. However, their scores were transparent if they looked away from the report. Their scores were an outcome, not of their engagement improvement plans, but of their daily leadership actions and the culture that they fostered in their teams.

Changing engagement outcomes to improve the responsiveness of a business and to better leverage the talent of its people, requires a focus on those people. We need to leave the engagement machine behind and begin work on the human side of the challenge: an individual employees experience of the purposes, interactions, the connection and the experience of work in the organisation. That will lead us to the changes in the system that will sustain growing engagement.


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