Engagement. It’s the word on every self respecting HR professionals lips right now. A multi billion dollar industry has even formed around the subject on the back of eye wateringly large budgets invested by organisations in the pursuance of an “engaged” workforce. Despite it being a business priority, and there being more evidence than you can shake a stick at to show that a highly engaged workforce delivers vastly improved organisational prosperity (take note David MacLeod!), it would seem as elusive to some organisations as the Holy Grail or the end of the proverbial rainbow. The sad fact is that global engagement levels are on the decline.
The problem, in my mind, is that we have lost sight of what we are trying to achieve here. In amongst all the hype and budgets, we seem to have forgotten that Engagement is actually an outcome, not an end in itself. As HR professionals and business leaders in general, we exacerbate the problem with the language we use. Think about it – even at a basic level the word engagement doesn’t chime with employees because it simply isn’t part of the average workers vocabulary. Engagement, like Empowerment is corporate speak. It’s a vanity term.
Empowerment is an outcome. An outcome of things that employees at large DO talk about and value highly – things like trust, honesty, openness and authenticity. These are the things that matter. These are the things that determine my likelihood to “engage’ or be engaged. The reason engagement remains elusive is simply because these things are largely missing from our organisations.
As an example, trust – probably one of the most fundamental things – is rapidly becoming a scarce resource, especially within the context of work. I don’t think its a co-incidence that engagement levels are on the decline at the same time that CEO’s have notched up their worst ever ranking in the Edelman Trust Index. Along with MP’s, CEO’s have suffered the biggest decline in the history of the barometer in terms of people we trust putting them both as the bottom two least trusted groups.
So what can be done? What is the answer? Lets go back to those key fundamentals – Trust, honesty, openness. Look closely and you will see that these are also outcomes. These things come from something else too. And that something else is conversation. Dialogue. The act of sharing views, opinions, feelings and so on. Conversation allows us to navigate our relationship paths. It allows us to assess someone’s potential to be trusted. It allows us to assess someone’s level of honesty. It also allows us to articulate our own sense of these words.
Conversation builds relationships. It builds trust. Ultimately, it builds engagement. Conversation should be the lifeblood of every organisation yet it is painfully absent from most, and has been for a long time. Many are making the problem worse by actively trying to close down the opportunity to converse and HR are at the epicentre of this clampdown. How ironic that the key to unlocking engagement is currently seen in some quarters as the root of all evil.
Social media – or perhaps more appropriately, any technology or intervention that enables real time engagement, conversation and collaboration – presents the biggest opportunity for organisations to unlock business value and find the end of that elusive engagement rainbow. More and more businesses are unlocking this value with customers using the same techniques, but see it as a threat when applied to employees. This is a huge mistake. I understand the fear – it’s no different to when customers first had a voice. Sometimes there are things we don’t want to hear. Things that we know exist but that we don’t want to talk about, or have aired.
In the context of engagement, many organisations have a lot of dirty employee and leadership linen. And they don’t want it aired either. Well, the truth is, its already out there – in the pub at lunchtime, at home in the evening and around the water cooler at work. Simply pretending it’s not happening if you can’t hear it is the thin end of the failure wedge.
Focusing on the negatives will prevent you from seeing the much bigger picture of how organisational effectiveness can be improved if you embrace rather than reject. As an example, this post from Jason Averbook and the interview it refers to articulate the benefits very well.
You want engagement? It starts with conversation. Social media is a great vehicle to make this happen. My advice to HR professionals is to change approach, embrace social technologies and bring these conversations out into the open and, perhaps more importantly, to take part themselves.