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Stripping The Jargon Away From Employee Engagement

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Multiple Meanings For Employee Engagement A Serious Problem

by Robert Bacal

Unless you read research journals that are often not available for free online, you'll probably be sur pi sed that there is no single, common definition of "employee engagement". That's one of the criticisms quietly levelled at the concept.

Because of this, it's very difficult to communicate with others about engagement, because each assumes that the way they are defining it is the way others are defining it, and that's often not the case.

For example, employee engagement can refer to any of the following:

  • employee behavior
  • feelings employees have
  • thoughts and perceptions employees have

These are all quite different things, and they don't have to "go together". Again, examples:

  • An employee can feel loyal to a company, think highly of a company but not BEHAVE consistent with those due to other issues and priorities having nothing to do with what the company does or doesn't do. In fact, that's one major reason why companies have had no success at boosting engagement.
  • An employee can actually perform their job tasks very well, while, at the same time, feeling anger towards the company. Negative feelings do NOT mean poor performance. Consider the example of an employee who gets angry at being overlooked for a promotion but works harder to prove him or herself worthy.
  • An employee can have positive or negative perceptions of a company that actually have no impact on what they do at work. Some employees go to work to achieve an economic end, for example, and don't get overly upset, one way or another at what the company does. They get their life satisfaction outside work.

When we get confused about our meanings, and we make the assumption that behavior and performance, feelings, and thoughts (cognitions) operate together and consistently, we move outside what we know about human psychology.

Another Definitional Approach - It Is What The Survey Measures

Another way of defining employee engagement is to say that:

Employee engagement is what the employee engagement survey measures

This is actually one of the more accurate, sensible definitions, but it really doesn't get us very far. In fact this definition leads us to a big problem, because it encourages companies to forget that the "measurement is not the thing", and to start thinking of employee engagement as an end in itself, rather than a business tool.

Thus you have situations where the goal becomes improving the results on the survey, which, after all, have no direct relationship to business success. Activity (measuring) becomes confused with effectiveness (better production or business results).

Old School: Employee Engagement About The Same As Employee Motivation

For over one hundred years, psychologists, and organizational development (industrial psychology professionals) have been investigating human motivation. There is a huge body of work about it, and about the complexities regarding what causes people to exert effort on specific activities. That work ranges from the horribly simple and wrong (Maslow's Hierarchy Of Needs), to the amazingly mathematical theories of Clark Hull that very few could understand.

In fact, though, employee engagement has replaced employee motivation as the current term to refer to something rather vague, more through marketing and familiarity than it being a superior concept.

That wouldn't be much of a problem except that we've acted like employee engagement is new, and don't draw upon what we have learned in one hundred years of study and research. In a sense, it is like starting from scratch.

That is one reason why people are not understanding that the factors that affect employee engagement are actually "hygiene factors" -- as defined by Herzberg in his Two Factor Theory in the 1950's and 1960's. Basically it states that there are two factors involved: things that increase effort or performance, and things that, when removed, decrease performance.

One of the reasons the whole employee engagement movement has failed, is a lack of understanding of this rather simple and understandable work by Herzberg, but it got thrown out along with the term "employee motivation".

On balance, we didn't need a replacement for "employee motivation", and replacing it with "employee engagement" has just confused people, and created an entire industry to suck out money from companies that should be spending it differently.

About Company

Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992. Since then Robert has trained thousands of employees to deal with angry, hostile, abusive and potentially violent customers. He has authored over 20 books on various subjects, many published by McGraw-Hill.


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