Saturday, November 2, 2013

On employee engagement

This week at work, I attended a workshop led by a visiting American academic on the subject of employee engagement. I found it very thought provoking, although I'm not sure the thinks that it has made me think are the intended thinks (if that makes sense!) I've been mulling over my reactions to it ever since, and thought I might try and tease them out a little bit here.

Employee engagement is a slightly odd concept to try to nail down, but I think it comes down, really, to the extent to which employees buy into, drive and support the mission, vision and operations of the organisation for which they work.  This is an imperfect definition, because it doesn't account very well for people who are highly invested in and engaged with the profession to which they belong, but don't necessarily feel any loyalty or attachment to their actual employer (ie doctors - medicine vs hospital; geologists - field vs mining company; historians - discipline vs University).

The first premise of the day was that employees can basically be divided into three (broad) categories when it comes to engagement - actively engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged. I'll try to render these definitions as well as I can, but bear in mind that they are a bit wibbly (like many management-y terms, dare I say...)

Actively engaged employees are committed not only to their work but to the organisational values and objectives of their workplace. They believe their work is meaningful, and they derive their own sense of meaning / wellbeing at least in part from work.

Un-engaged / not engaged employees may be diligent workers, with personable, professional attitudes, but they do not see their work or their workplace as part of who they are. They may or may not take a time-serving approach to work, and they do not innovate, take risks, or take initiative.

Actively disengaged employees not only feel no commitment to their work, they actually hate it and work to undermine the overall organisational objectives, infecting others with their negative approach. They may have strong resentment towards their employer and see no meaning in what they do.

Using the results of an international Gallup poll as evidence, the suggestion is that a minority of employees fall into either polar opposite of this spectrum - the clear majority, sitting typically around 60-65% in most countries, are in the middle "not engaged" bracket.

The speaker went on to draw a link between organisations with higher numbers of actively engaged employees vs actively disengaged and organisational success. Note that it's the ratio, rather than the hard number, that we're talking about here - it seems to suggest a multiplying effect (law of attraction kind of stuff), whereby the higher the positive-to-negative number, the better the organisation does even if there are less actual actively engaged employees by proportion. (Thus, if Organisation X has 20% actively engaged, 70% not engaged and 10% actively disengaged, it's better off, and more likely to succeed, than Organisation Y, with 25% actively engaged, 50% not engaged, and 25% actively disengaged).

Leaving aside the elephant in the room for a minute (as a colleague pointed out, there is a big correlation vs causation problem here), this gave me furiously to think about the proposition that for organisations to succeed, they have to increase the number of people who are actively engaged. (Thinning the herd of actively disengaged is a no-brainer, of course). It made me think about what it means to be actively engaged, and how culturally specific that concept might be.

Is it the case, as the speaker suggested, that passion is more important than competence? Is it the case that only workers who invest a significant part of their existential struggle into work are capable to delivering great outcomes? Does work have to be the answer to the ontological quest of every person's life in order to be successful? What does "successful" even mean, here? It's easy to measure for Silicon Valley start-ups (the main consulting field of our speaker), but what does success look like for a school? A University? A government?

I wonder about the idea, expressed as a mantra, that people are happier when their search for meaning is invested in their work. I think this is a very white-collar and culturally specific idea. resting on assumptions about worldview, work, and the self that might be laughably inapplicable outside of a Western frame. Indeed, they sounded slightly odd - off-kilter - even to a room full of Australians, so I wonder if this isn't even more specific than that - an American vision, maybe an American entrepeneurial vision, of how lives find purpose and what the proper relationship of work to life might be.

For me, you see, I value competence highly, in myself and others. In fact, I value it more highly than passion. I am proud of my skills, and that includes all my skills (interpersonal and relational, as well as technical) and I seek to continuously improve them. I do see my work as meaningful, and I am committed to achieving the objectives I've been set and exceeding where that is possible. Work is mentally stimulating and socially rewarding, and what I do, if I do it properly, makes other people's jobs easier and supports my organisation to achieve its goals, and I do value that very much. I like my employer, my colleagues and my conditions of work, and I would never do anything against their interests.

But what I don't do is confuse work with life. Work is what I do to allow me to live my life in the way I choose to, and support my family at the level I wish to. My work is not the font of all meaning for me as a person; my sense of self, my sense of satisfaction in life, can be negatively impacted (temporarily) by work, but not completed positively by work. Who I am and what I am, my own search for meaning, is forged in familial relationships, my spirituality, my sense of myself as a writer. At the end of the day, I could do a different job without affecting my sense of meaningfulness in my life, and that's what tells me, under these definitions, that I'm not "actively engaged."

Yet, isn't that a pretty high bar to set? I believe I am innovative in the way I approach my work. I believe I do use initiative and take risks (the last two weeks bear this out!) I think I am focused on quality and outcomes and that does show. (I hope). Is it really the case that I don't add enough value because I don't tie my sense of self up with the job I do?

Interesting thinks, these.

This is post 2 in NaBloPoMo. 2 down, 28 to go!

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your comments above and find the 3 characteristics (especially the 'un-engaged' category, which is where I would probably fall in the list) rather insulting and also old fashioned. The days of working for the same employer for an entire (work) lifetime are over for most people. Organisations rarely show that sort of loyalty to employees, especially during bad financial times.

    Like you, I try to do the best I can while I'm at work, and would never go against my organisation - but that does not mean my entire life is tied up in my work, or that I feel my organisation is part of who I am. However, I try to innovate and do the best work I can when I'm there.

    Part of my issue may be that I identify more with my profession than my organisation and this seems to be lacking from the way employees are characterised. I would also agree that passion is not the greatest asset in an employee. A former colleague of mine was very passionate about the organisation - so passionate he was happy to work weekends too - but his passion hid his incompetency and his complete lack of time management skills. I would much rather work with a competent employee who went home at 5pm but who I could trust to do their job properly.

    Work is good - I am glad I have a job that I enjoy and that I am good at. But the main benefit of work is the quality of life it affords me so I can do the things I do derive meaning and satisfaction from.