Let’s start by having a look at these excerpts from articles published on the websites of Fast Company and Financial Review.

“You’re sick of hearing about “employee engagement.” You already know why it’s so important for your team members to be happy at their jobs, and you’re fully aware that legions are not. To be sure, low engagement has real problems: productivity, work quality, and collaborative abilities are all on the line. When team morale sinks, work culture suffers, and a whole manner of consequences can follow.

But knowing all that isn’t the same as solving it. And one reason so many companies manifestly fail to solve it is because the bar is set too low: Your employees shouldn’t just be content or “engaged.” In order to really succeed as a company, they need to be passionate. You need to hire people who genuinely fall in love with everything about your company—your brand, your services, your products, your passion. Some businesses are already figuring out how to tap into the enthusiasm of their most loyal customers for recruiting purposes. This way, consumer and employer brands can become mutually reinforcing.”

Source: 3 Reasons Why “Employee Engagement” Isn’t Enough, by Barry S. Saltzman, in Fast Company.

“One of the largest private enterprises in the world has started weeding out one of the longest running ‘rackets’ in human resources: annual employee engagement surveys.

The lead partner of KPMG’s global HR transformation centre of excellence, Robert Bolton, said the professional services firm, which employs 162,000 in cities all over the globe, will strive to swap employee engagement surveys for a more robust diagnostic that focuses on ‘something truly worth measuring’.

Hard evidence is mounting that contrary to popular belief, engagement doesn’t drive performance. In fact, the inverse is true. Performance drives engagement.”

Source: KPMG dumps ‘abused’ staff surveys, by Agnes King, in Financial Review.
Given that engagement programmes continue to be spectacularly ineffective (according to Gallup¹, only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged at work), why don’t all enterprises follow KPMG’s lead and abolish them?

Note 1: See State of the Global Workplace report 2013 (I am seeking a more recent version).
The answer, in part, is because so many people, including organisation development professionals, survey firms and software vendors, have too much invested in the engagement paradigm. Engagement is how they earn their living. When the efficacy of employee engagement work is challenged, their stock response is: “You’re doing it wrong, and we can help you do it right.”

“There is a massive industry behind the belief that if a company drives up engagement, productivity will increase.”

Source: KPMG dumps ‘abused’ staff surveys, by Agnes King, in Financial Review.
Trying to engage a person is like trying to dance them. It cannot be done.
Dance? No thanks!
The engagement model is fundamentally flawed. It will never work. Gary Hamel puts his finger on it in these passages from his book The Future of Management:

“If there was a single question that obsessed 20th century managers, from Frederick Taylor to Jack Welch, it was this: How do we get more out of our people?

At one level, this question is innocuous—who can object to the goal of raising human productivity?

Yet it’s also loaded with industrial age thinking: How do we (meaning ‘management’) get more (meaning units of production per hour) out of our people (meaning the individuals who are obliged to follow our orders)?

Ironically, the management model encapsulated in this question virtually guarantees that a company will never get the best out of its people. Vassals and conscripts may work hard, but they don’t work willingly.”

Three questions

The next time someone says “We need to engage our employees”, I suggest you ask them:

  • What do you mean by “engage”? Engage them in what, and for what purpose?
  • What theory explains how this will happen?
  • What leads you to believe it will be effective in this particular case?

More quotes

“‘Discretionary effort’ is the fancy term for going above and beyond as an employee. Putting more energy and passion into your role than is required by your job description or perhaps even recognized by your pay.

Discretionary effort is why businesses obsess over employee engagement. The theory goes that an engaged employee is more likely to expend discretionary effort—and therefore, is more profitable. Hence why so many tools exist to measure changes in engagement, to identify the disengaged, and to coach leaders on how to boost engagement on their teams.

And when platforms like Gallup or Culture Amp measure engagement, they’re trying to assess an employee’s emotional commitment to their employer. An engaged employee is considered passionate and devoted, likely to go the extra mile and to stay with the company longer.”

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“Right now, instead of obsessing over how much our employees are committed to us, perhaps it’s time to prove how much we’re committed to them.”

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We don’t actually know what employee engagement is.

Source: The Campaign for Meaningful Work, by Andrew Spence, on HR Transformer Blog.

Further reading

8 reasons why Employee Engagement is in danger of disappearing up its own arse, by Keith Hatter, on LinkedIn

Employee Engagement Isn’t Getting Better And Gallup Shares The Surprising Reasons Why, by Marc C. Crowley, on LinkedIn Pulse

Employee engagement: the business case, by Corporate Rebels

The End Of ‘Employee Engagement?’ by Rodd Wagner, in Forbes

KPMG dumps ‘abused’ staff surveys, by Agnes King, in Financial Review

Six forms of engagement: optimizing engagement instead of pressurizing it, by Mike Klein, on LinkedIn