Insight article

Is employee engagement a fad? Maybe. But does it matter?

I went to a stimulating discussion event earlier this week at the Groucho Club in London, hosted by Engage for Change. The event took the format of a debate. The resolution? ‘Employee engagement is just another management fad’.

An audience poll at the beginning revealed around one third to be in agreement that employee engagement is nothing more than a fad. And in the end, the speakers in the ‘yes’ camp apparently won some converts. About two thirds of the raised arms were in support of the resolution.

The sad thing is, even if employee engagement is a fad, it’s not much of one. The ’employee engagement crowd’ can at times be quite far from C-suite execs. The concepts of employee engagement and its relevance to business performance can seem self-evident to its advocates in HR and organisational development circles, but they often struggle to gain an audience with those at the top of organisational hierarchies. A fad implies that everyone’s trying to get a piece of it, and that’s just not happening right now.

And here’s another problem: what’s the opposite of a fad? Surely something that’s not a fad would be concrete and obviously meaningful. Employee engagement, on the other hand, lacks anything resembling an agreed definition. David MacLeod’s report identified 50+ going definitions. Perhaps executives’ reluctance to engage with employee engagement stems in part from the fact that no one really knows exactly what we’re talking about when we talk about employee engagement.

But, at the risk of sounding a bit mystical, just because we can’t define something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. You can argue over whether increasing employee engagement is worthwhile, or even possible. You can debate whether engagement is a means to an end (i.e. business performance) or an end in itself (i.e. the normative argument that employees should have positive feelings towards their work). But you can’t really argue that it isn’t a good thing (whatever ‘it’ is, exactly).

At its worst, employee engagement is nothing more than a manufactured “dark art that gives HR people something to do”, as one speaker put it. But that of course is a very limited vision of what engagement is all about. As we continue to discover in our work, there are so many things that affect how an employee feels about his or her working life, and it’s not something any single department can take on on its own. It’s not the narrowness of employee engagement as ‘just’ an HR function that keeps employee engagement from flourishing, but rather the breadth of the challenges is presents.

In our work, we’ve seen over and over again the transformative power of getting an organisation’s people genuinely behind a new initiative, new behaviours or new ways of working. Our goals aren’t simply to increase engagement—that’s a by-product—but rather to make the organisation seem more human, leaders to become more authentic, goals to become more realistic, to allow people to collaborate and discover better ways of working. These are just some of the aspects that inform whether employees are engaged, and it varies immensely from company to company. So I’d in fact agree, at least in part, with the resolution. Employee engagement is faddish in its vagueness. It’s not nearly enough to just say ‘we need to increase our employee engagement’. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of things companies can and should do that will end up doing just that.

For a more thorough breakdown of the arguments presented at the event, check out Gloria Lombardi’s excellent write-up. And for a rousing employee engagement call to arms, check out the RSA’s Matthew Taylor in his 2013 lecture (researched by yours truly).

Nailia Tasseel