The art of engagement…

If you are in HR and wondering what impact social media will have in your organisation beyond ‘employees wasting time’ then I have something for you.

I was recently lucky enough to be invited along to the Sunday Times Best Companies Top 100 dinner as a result of a very generous invite from the CIPD.  A fun and interesting evening it was too and if you were into buzzword bingo, this was the place to be.  The one word that came up time and time again was Engagement.

What occurred to me, listening to the speakers and hearing about the awards, was that as organisations, our attitude to engagement has changed little in the 20 odd years I have been working.  Even the way we try to ‘engage’ or measure ‘engagement’ has remained pretty much the same, save for some automation and the beneifts of data analysis brought about by technology and the internet.

This seems totally at odds with the fact that the way we, as employees engage has changed significantly.  This presents a huge potential disconnect between organisations and the individuals that inhabit them.

My grandfather spent his life in the coalmine and he did so without ever openly challenging the work he was doing or the working conditions he had to endure.  He accepted his lot and got on with it, never moaning to anyone, not even his wife.

Fast forward half a century to the 60’s and 70’s and we see a significant shift with the onset of the trade union and collective bargaining.  By this time, we are happy to take issue with our paymasters – but through a third party, and only largely on issues relating to pay and conditions. Hiding behind the front of an official representative was comfortable.  It was also sometimes necessary in order to protect your job.

Fast forward to today and the landscape is very different again.  Unions still exist, but as individuals we have become much more comfortable with challenging the organisations which put the bread on our table.  And not only over issues of pay and conditions.  The whole remit of the organisation is up for grabs – style and competency (and more recently the pay and conditions) of the leadership, ethics and integrity of the organisation, how it is managed, how it produces and markets its products and so on.

Currently this ‘noise’ is relatively low key, and there is still a large amount of anonymous dialogue on blog posts and websites.  But the momentum is gathering.  Or, as @drmcewan put it in a recent conversation we had on this very subject, there is a ‘rising chorus of voices’ which is being amplified significantly though the use of social media.  It may not acceptable right now to express your dissatisfaction with, say, your boss on your facebook page.  But getting fired for it will soon be a thing of the past.  And over time, more and more people will become comfortable with challenging, openly, decisions and actions of their employers.  Anonymity will not be necessary.

Unfortunately, to a large extend, we still see these conversations in a negative light, preferring to either close them down, ‘manage’ them or avoid them taking place altogether.  Which is, in my humble opinion, a big mistake as it is these very conversations that hold the key to business transformation.

As HR professionals, and leaders in general, there are a number of ways we can respond to this ‘rising chorus’.  I know how I would respond. Do you?!


  1. Hi Gareth. Great post as always.

    It seems to me that similar to one’s non-work life, open and honest conversation can only lead to a positive result even if it’s a bit uncomfortable at the outset. Discussions not had fester and lead to eruptions when the boiling point is reached.

    If people (employees) feel like the need to surpress their views won’t this hinder change and innovation? Both things that need to happen now for companies to survive and thrive in today’s environment.

    Keep challenging!



  2. Great post Gareth,

    HR will default to ‘police’ mode in response to your ‘rising chorus’, I am afraid to say. A direct consequence of the unequal relationship HR has with other business units, will mean that it will defer to power in times of conflict. And power will always say, ‘crack down’, before anything else.

    I endorse your clarion call..

    …but change will come from smaller organizations who have already re-imagined the relationships of employer-employee, and of HR-to-business. I daresay the Times 100 will not include many of these companies.

    Great work, look forward to what others say.

    Best wishes



  3. Nice post Gareth. I respond by encouraging folk to speak up and to sing up. I’m on a project at the moment and I am encouraged by the increase in transparency of communication I have managed to kick off. The leadership team I’m coaching are getting to grips with it and their people really appreciate it. I hope it becomes the way they work round here and continues long after I’m gone.

    Here’s a little something that Greg Savage published a little while ago. I don’t buy all these ten rules, and there is some useful stuff here that helps turn up the volume.

    I hear ya!


  4. Gareth, great observations, nice post and you pose a good question. Abraham Maslow’s the issue imho, or rather his observations, and that I’d say the root cause behind this is the primal drive of an evolving human nature and that it wants to self-actualize.

    It means a trajectory towards working models of employment that go beyond servitude.

    Your grandfather sounds like he was a fine man, but he probably grew up in an age where deference to one’s bosses and accepting one’s lot was the norm.

    There’s a parallel now between how we govern organisations politically and commercially.

    Gradually over the centuries we’ve seen ‘government’ go from absolute rulership to autocracy to meritocracy; and at the same time we’ve connected up globally via digital communications. The net result is there’s a great deal more choice about where we can put our focus and energy. Either as consumers or producers, there’s not one factory in town anymore and this changes things a great deal.

    It’s interesting to me that these dynamics are putting noses out of joint, that ‘engagement’ is seen as long-lost and much-mourned simply because people aren’t so malleable these days.

    Rather than bemoaning it, wouldn’t it be more productive to brush up on how to make the kind of social contracts that people will buy into, going from ‘I win, you lose’ deals that profit owners and investors, to ‘we all win’ management models that are quite simply more sustainable?

    When businesses are primarily in the business of servicing investor debts, they’re not able to effectively harness the freely given support of people who believe in what they’re doing.

    The servitude of debt is a problem that feeds the cycle and I believe in the long term is something that business models will have to look at in tandem with the engagement issue.


  5. Hi Gareth

    A cracking post that deserves a more considered response from me that this on-the-run comment.

    Thinking about ‘engagement’ and people having their say, the funniest story I ever heard was a council up North (can’t remember where) in the early 2000s supporting an initiative to supply council tenants with reconditioned pcs. They were then hooked up to a network. The tenants in one particular block of flats used their newly connected capability to complain bitterly about the state of repair of their building.

    I wonder how long that initiative lasted 🙂


  6. agreed, if you want engagement, receiving & listening to negative feedback is absolutely critical to the success of engagement. When negative/constructive feedback is closed down, so is engagement.

    Negative feedback is a GIFT- it shows organisations what’s needed to bring them to the next level.

    I look forward to the day when we celebrate feedback, of every variety, and put it to good use- creating more effective, efficient & happier organisations for all involved- employees, managers, shareholders AND customers.


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