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Stop worrying about employee engagement


Are we in the midst of an employee engagement crisis? Or have consultants created a problem in order to sell business a solution, asks Nick Bron for Leadership Review.

2013 might have been a watershed year for the concept of “employee engagement”. Gallup published research indicating that only 13% of employees are “engaged” at work.

Was this the start of an employee engagement crisis? Put into context, the figure was an improvement from 11% in 2010, so perhaps not. But the coverage that followed sparked a debate that continues today: how important is employee engagement; how do we define it; how can business leaders measure it and, ultimately, how can they improve it?


There is a clear correlation between employee engagement and profit, claims a recent MIT Sloan Review article. Authors Kumar and Panari measured engagement at 30 companies. After controlling for other relevant factors (such as GDP and the nature of goods or services), they found the highest level of profit (10% to 15%) occurred in companies whose employees were “highly engaged”, while low levels translated to low (0% to 1%) profit growth.


High engagement also gives your company competitive advantage, says John Bersin on Forbes: “If your people love their work and the environment you have created, they will treat customers better, innovate, and continuously improve your business.”

Bersin, who heads leading HR research and analyst firm Bersin by Deloitte, believes employee engagement needs ongoing, real-time measurement and reaction, and companies should consider providing more inspiring workplaces like the tech companies:

“We may need to change the way we manage people (end appraisals?), change the work environment (open offices? nap rooms? ping pong tables?), and change who we hire (are we hiring the right people for our mission, culture and values? are we assessing well?). All these things tend to go well beyond the typical engagement survey.”


So do companies really need to spend big on consultants to improve their employee engagement? Not necessarily, says Paul Keegan on Inc.

“Employee engagement has become such a hot topic that great swarms of consultants and authors are undoubtedly banging on your door as we speak, armed with enough action plans and PowerPoint presentations to make your head swim. Whom to trust? What to believe?”

The employment engagement survey is a $1bn business. But is it, as the late Canadian statistician Robert Gerst called it, merely “junk science”? Gerst took particular umbrage with the industry because the consultants who conduct the expensive survey are the same ones who sell services to remedy poor results.


Low-cost surveys can provide a more effective solution, says Keegan, citing web production company Nerdery, which avoided the pitfalls and high consultancy costs of the traditional engagement survey by asking the right questions, following up with staff, investigating the results in detail, and acting on what they discovered.

Transparency and a determination to follow up with action, in this case, were crucial to a successful outcome.


The personal approach trumps corporation-wide surveys and consultants every time, says Liz Ryan, on Forbes.

“If you care about the energy on your team, you won’t throw surveys at people – you’ll invite them to sit down with a cup of coffee and tell you what they’re experiencing at work and what they’re thinking about. If you say, ‘That will take too much time!’ then you’ve already decided that the energy on your team is not a priority.”

Having one-to-one talks with employees is key, agrees Neil Morrison, HR director for Penguin Random House UK: “Surveys are fine, but simply having actual conversations and asking employees, ‘What can we do better?’ is much more valuable. If employees can’t sit down with their boss and talk about things… you have a problem.”


What happens to employees outside of the workplace is also crucial. Business leaders need to consider the bigger picture, says Rob Gray for HR Magazine, and you may be missing a trick if you don’t investigate wellbeing and engagement together. He cites Wendy Cartwright, chair of the Engage for Success (E4S) movement in the UK:

“We found that individuals, teams and organisations work most productively for sustained periods where there are high levels of engagement and wellbeing. This is because where there is high engagement but low wellbeing, there is a risk of burnout over time and where there is high wellbeing but low engagement, employees may be feeling generally satisfied and well but are unconnected to the organisational purpose.“

And there’s another upside to tuning into employee wellbeing: “It is possible to create a kind of a virtuous circle in the relationship between employee engagement and wellbeing… when organisations really pay attention to the factors that facilitate staff wellbeing, this can help to generate a feeling of connection with the organisation and stronger employee engagement.”


“What happens after the workday may be just as important as what happens during it,” agrees Susan LaMotte, writing for Harvard Business Review: “When we only try to understand and affect what happens at work, we ignore the most basic tenet of person-organisation fit: employees bring their whole selves to work.”

Focus on employee needs, values and activities outside of work to improve employee engagement and supplement staff surveys with questions that help you understand your employees and their outside interests.


The very act of taking an interest in the happiness and wellbeing of your staff – whether via a survey or through personal contact – should in itself be the necessary signal to a disengaged workforce that their leaders care and want to improve things.

“So don’t worry about employee engagement. Instead, treat people well, listen to them, and give them room to grow… And if your heart is in the right place, they’ll see that,” concludes Keegan.


Worldwide, 13% Of Employees Are Engaged At Work
Steve Crabtree

Measuring The Benefits Of Employee Engagement
V Kumar and Anita Pansari
MIT Sloan Management Review

It’s Time To Rethink The “Employee Engagement” Issue
Josh Bersin

The 5 New Rules Of Employee Engagement
Paul Keegan

What Does “Employee Engagement” Mean?
Liz Ryan

Employee Engagement Closely Tied To Health And Wellbeing
Rob Gray
HR Magazine

Employee Engagement Depends On What Happens Outside Of The Office
Susan LaMotte