Employee engagement: are confusion and ambiguity hindering success?


There’s a lot of noise about employee engagement but not a great deal of clarity, argues Jo Harley. How can we simplify our strategies and ensure they are effective?

Employee engagement has become a subject of debate, confusion and derision. It’s ambiguous; over-complicated; siloed. But if it is consistently executed in the right way and combined with enablement and empowerment, it’s a sure-fire way to achieve competitive advantage and business success.

The term itself features almost daily in the mainstream HR rhetoric, yet business leaders see it as vague, confusing and misunderstood, according to the respondents in our Engage, Enable Empower survey. This confusion is the roadblock to engagement being successful, leading to increased motivation, productivity and, in turn, growth.

Our research comprised a qualitative study of 12 interviews with academics, board directors and CEOs, a quantitative study comprising an online questionnaire completed by 220 respondents and a focus group of 10 business and entrepreneurship students at Hult International Business School, representing the leaders of the future. In 69% of the organisations studied, the HR director held a board-level position.

When asked what employee engagement meant to them, respondents were in complete disagreement – the quantitative survey alone threw up 13 different definitions.

Of the total sample, 17% of respondents supported the statement “engagement is about employees being empowered and enabled to thrive”, 15% supported the statement “if employees are engaged, so too will customers be” but 12% of respondents think engagement is merely about employees enjoying coming to work.

Interestingly, just 2% think engagement is “fluffy” HR speak, 2% think it’s a “fad” and a just over one in 10 (12%) see engagement as a core business strategy. In fact, 1% go so far as to suggest engagement is nothing more than a “pat on the back for HR”.

Confusion at every level

Even when the data is cut, comparing the opinions of CEOs, MDs and other stakeholders, to HR directors, the results are essentially the same. There is as much confusion about employee engagement amongst the HR community as there is among CEOs.

“There is no common language around engagement – everyone has a different idea of what it means.” – Gareth Hughes, Royal Bank of Canada Capital Markets

The research also found business leaders believe the main barriers to successful employee engagement are lack of understanding throughout the business, as cited by 39% of respondents. This was perceived to be a bigger blocker than lack of investment in engagement strategy (believed by 37% of respondents to be the biggest challenge).

Delving deeper into the qualitative opinions, Gareth Hughes, MD & Head of HR (Europe), Royal Bank of Canada Capital Markets, said: “There is no common language around engagement – everyone has a different idea of what it means. Employers need to really explore the drivers of engagement in order to understand it.”

Isabel Naidoo VP of HR at FIS Global added: “The word [engagement] is used to cover multiple elements within people management and masks hidden problems. You could have a myriad of “engagement programs” but if your line managers and supervisors aren’t caring for their teams on the ground the programs won’t resonate. That could cause confusion.”

Alistair Procter, Chief Human Resources Officer, IPG Mediabrands, explained: “You can’t escape the endless articles that exist on the topic of engagement and how its covered from so many different angles that it can confuse and sometimes appear like there’s an over obsession with it.”

Too much noise

So instead of creating clarity and greater awareness of the subject, the noise and conversation about engagement has led instead to complexity and ambiguity.

It’s clear that it’s time to step back and simplify – so what’s the solution?

In the qualitative study, Alan Mellor head of employee engagement at Pentland Brands, said: “I like to talk about employee experience as this is a clearer concept. Employee experience also fits with how we talk about consumer experience, candidate experience and makes you think more operationally than theoretically. It can also focus on an individual or a group experience and is a much more accurate and usable term for everybody to understand.”

And so to conclude, I would like to suggest as a first step, a simple tweet-friendly definition of engagement: “Engagement – the right people, doing the right things, exceeding expectations, enthusiastically.”

It’s that straightforward, really.


About Jo Harley

Jo Harley is managing director of employee engagement specialists Purple Cubed.
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