Something to believe in (The not-so-dark art of employee engagement)

Depending who you ask, it’s either the key to unlocking your workforce’s potential or a fluffy HR issue not worthy of the C-suite.
It’s easy to see why employee engagement is a can of worms.
It’s a can of worms because there’s so much ambiguity over the term; its meaning, drivers and implications. So I thought I’d try to untangle the confusion between employee engagement, satisfaction and workplace culture.
These three things may overlap, but they’re not the same.
Workplace culture guides discretionary behaviour. Work ethic, atmosphere, permission to indulge in creative exploration, disruptive approaches, fun, innovation and social activities. It’s not written down, you can’t dictate it from above, and it changes over time. And while it’s enormously important, it’s not the same thing as employee engagement.
It can influence the extent to which employees go ‘above and beyond’ the basic requirements of their job. But when incremental gains are driven purely by culture, this is not a reflection of how engaged employees are with the organisation’s goals.
Similarly, employee satisfaction is a good, but separate thing. It’s indicative of how provisioned people are to do their job, how fairly rewarded, and whether they have opportunities for progression. It can be managed by giving strong leadership, clear roles and responsibilities, structured training, fair performance management, good recognition, competitive pay and decent development opportunities.
These are things considered in rankings like the Times Top 100 and the Fortune 100. And, of course, they’re important. But like a strong culture, keeping employees satisfied isn’t the same as winning their hearts and minds.
An employee who enjoys her work, gets on with managers and colleagues, is paid well and has fun isn’t necessarily engaged. She just has a great job.
So what is engagement and how is it different?
Fundamentally, engagement comes from employees understanding what their organisation stands for and is trying to achieve; believing and supporting it, knowing how they can contribute, and seeing its impact.
Of these, the first is fundamental. Consider the average police officer, firefighter, nurse, teacher, or soldier. These professions are underpaid, difficult, shrouded with bureaucracy and politics. They’re emotionally taxing and often dangerous. There’s little tangible reward for what’s put in. You could class employee satisfaction (according to our definition above) as challenging at best.
Yet many of the people in these professions are disproportionately engaged with their professions. This is because the human values they hold are connected to the purpose of their employer. They are bound by shared values.
It’s the same for many people who work in the charity sector, where a belief in the organisation’s purpose, work and impact is the primary source of engagement; a more powerful driver than financial reward, and capable of overcoming a myriad of rational and tangible frustrations that you might measure employee satisfaction against.
Of course, this connection between purpose and engagement also translates into the corporate world. And as more and more businesses undertake the introspective exercise of defining their purpose, a persistent question arises – does purpose have to be virtuous, connected to some form of social good? Or is it enough to have a purpose that is solely about profit, market share or shareholder return?
The answer depends on what you’re hoping purpose is going to do for you. If it’s purely to guide strategy and decision-making, then having a clear commercial ambition is a powerful tool. But it’s unlikely to inspire or resonate with your workforce, let alone your consumers – two audiences who will dictate whether you’re capable of achieving any such ambition in the first place. In this scenario, employees may work for you (and customers may buy from you) – but they won’t believe in you.
On the other hand, businesses that have a commitment to some form of social good – generating value to society as well as shareholders – are reaping the benefits in terms of talent and engagement from a generation of job-seekers looking to close the distance between what they want from a job and what they believe is important.
For many millennials, achieving harmony between their career and their principles is a form of self-actualisation. It’s a departure from previous generations who based careers largely on job security and reward. And this generational shift is set to continue.
Consequently, organisations are coming to the conclusion that being a sustainable business equipped for long-term success requires making some form of contribution that connects them to society.
Patagonia is an oft-cited example; ‘Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.’
Their employees believe in this. So do their consumers. Patagonia reaps the rewards.
Finding shared value – making money while doing good – is becoming the Holy Grail for many businesses. It enables them to form deeper relationships and build much higher levels of engagement with their workforces and consumers, while pursuing their commercial ambitions.
So, the first step to engaging your workforce?
Give them something to believe in.