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Let’s Stop Talking About Employee Engagement

Employee Engagement: I’ll argue that it’s the most overused term in human resources. And like any phrase that’s reached a saturation point, it’s at risk of being relegated to a top ten list of business terms that should be stricken from the corporate vocabulary. But it also runs the risk of death by cliché – its importance (because it is important!) diluted by its ubiquity. We’ve heard it, we’ve read about it, we’ve talked about it, and of course, we’ve surveyed it. But have we forgotten what it really means? Have we over complicated what it really takes to achieve it?

There’s a lot to be said about it, as evidenced by the nearly 2,000,000 hits you’ll get on Google if you’re interested in reading quotes about employee engagement. My favorite? A March 2013 tweet by Neil Morrison, ‎Director, Strategy, Culture and Innovation at Penguin Random House UK: “Every time I hear the word engagement another part of me dies.”

I think that’s how a lot of us feel. Employee engagement is often defined as the degree to which employees are committed to their jobs, passionate about their work and operating at a level of productivity that contributes to the organization’s success. It’s time to look beyond that definition. It’s time to take a few giant steps back to where it has to begin - with an investment.
That investment is a relationship where both employee and employer make a mutual contribution, sharing both an interest in and accountability for a result that yields something greater than the sum of its parts. Maybe it’s a subtle distinction, but making an investment requires an outlay. It mandates focus, risk, patience, vulnerability, and the willingness to take action at the right time for the right reason (because sometimes the best course of action is to part ways). The path isn’t always linear, because at its core, it’s a relationship between people.

What if we begin with a Maslowian perspective – where the path to reaching full potential hinges on meeting fundamental human needs? Beyond the foundational physiological and safety needs of employee (competitive pay and benefits, appropriate working conditions and a general level of security in the job), everything else originates from a sense of belonging and value, and I’d argue that these needs can only be fulfilled in the context of a healthy relationship. Think about relationship fundamentals as they relate to your workplace and ask yourself:



Do your employees have the fundamental values and competencies that your organization needs to succeed? Do you hire with that in mind? 



Do your employees trust you? Do you trust them? Do people work from a mutually understood set of expectations?



Are people communicating outside of the typical performance management process? Can employees and managers be honest with each other, giving feedback (both positive and developmental) with the intention of bettering the relationship, the work performance and ultimately, the organization? Are you recognizing contributions, growth and successes? Do employees know what they need to do to correct performance issues? Do you hold them accountable?


Maximizing Strengths

Have you cultivated an environment that can elicit, leverage and evolve the best that an employee has to offer? Are they giving you their best in return? Is the best that they have to offer aligned with what you need? 

Finally, you create engagement when you create meaning in the workplace. Do your employees feel as though their work matters? Do they perform their jobs in a way that demonstrates that it does? If they do, they’ll be motivated intrinsically – and that’s what engagement is really about.

Sandy Turba is the Managing Consultant at TAMS Group.  She works with a team of top-notch consultants to provide practical solutions to companies designed to improve employee and organizational productivity, attract, develop, manage and reward their most critical assets: their employees; and minimize workplace compliance risk.