The history of employee engagement

by David Zinger | Posted | Engagement

The history of employee engagement

When did you first hear the phrase employee engagement? What did you think those two words mean to you? What is your current experience with employee engagement?

In our race for solutions to quarterly problems we often fail to gain perspective on where we have been, where we are, and where we are headed.

This post will outline the evolution of employee engagement, examine the current state of employee engagement, and offer suggestions for authentic and healthy employee engagement into the future.

This post is not an historical treatise on engagement. Rather it offers the opportunity to stand back, gain perspective, and discover some markers on the road to robust and authentic employee engagement for the benefit of all.

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness…Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. – George Santayana

What contributes to employee engagement?

The first use of the term employee engagement occurred in a 1990 Academy of Management Journal by William A. Kahn. Kahn’s article on the Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work (PDF) examined the conditions at work which contribute to engagement and disengagement. He discovered that the individual and contextual sources of meaningfulness, safety, and availability had a significant impact on engagement.

This study of camp counselors and members of an architecture firm is still a valuable study to read. Some of Kahn’s work has been rediscovered or repackaged by Daniel Pink twenty-one years later in his work and book on drive.

The growing interest in employee engagement

During the mid-1990′s Gallup started to refine and extend their Q12. The Q12 is a twelve question copyrighted survey asking such questions as, do you know what is expected of you at work? And, do you have a best friend at work? Gallup has asked these questions millions of times and created a significant data base and spawned the industry of employee engagement. Gallup’s questions were simple and the implications of a more engaged workforce were compelling.

In the 2000′s engagement gathered speed, depth and breadth. Google searches of the term in the early 2000′s offered about 50,000 results and now the same search term offers 47,500,000 results. Twitter tweets on employee engagement would appear about every 30 minutes five years ago and now occur just about every minute.

The last decade also seemed to be the golden age of surveys. Everyone seemed to have a new survey and a new definition of engagement. Technology advanced and SurveyMonkey lead us to believe that any monkey could create a survey.

On a less flippant note more people were taking notice of employee engagement and the very compelling business case for engagement developed. The UK lead the world in their work on employee engagement with two Prime Ministers supporting and encouraging employee engagement work through the development of the Engage for Success movement.

At the end of 2012, the Engage for Success group released a report nailing the business case evidence on employee engagement with the business benefits of performance, safety, profits, retention, wellbeing, etc.

The current state of employee engagement: two roads diverging

This brings us to the current state of engagement. I believe it resembles Stephen Leacock’s line “he flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.” We have in excess of 50 different definitions for employee engagement with some people suggesting you can “smell” engagement.

Some organizations are just catching on to engagement, some have declared victory, some have suggested that engagement is dead, and some have jumped on the bandwagon by labelling everything as engagement from hotdog days to YouTube recruiting dances.

Here is where it gets risky, to move from where we have been to where we are headed and to give you some suggestions to move in the right direction. Two roads are diverging on employee engagement. One seems to lead to the end of engagement as a fad that failed to realize its promise. The other road leads to the end of engagement because it will integrate so closely into how we lead and manage our people that using the term will become superfluous.

The second road has work revolving around engagement rather than engagement revolving around work. Of course, I choose to take the road of revolution and integration and trust that this will make all the difference.

5 ways to create a revolution of employee engagement in your organization

Here are 5 suggestions to help you to create a revolution of employee engagement for the benefit of all:

1. Ensure all conditions have been met so that employees and the organization are ready, willing, and able to engage fully and authentically with their work.

2. Ensure employee engagement is not merely adding more programs and responsibilities to overtaxed managers and other employees. Rather integrate engagement into the way the organization is already working and fuse it with performance management, progress monitoring, daily interaction, and meaningful conversations about work.

3. Ensure engagement is attached to key business or organization results and metrics as opposed to a standalone statistic.

4. Spend wisely. Ensure the bulk of any budget devoted to engagement is spent on intervention or improvement of engagement rather than being squandered in yet another large scale survey.

5. Involve employees fully in your approach to employee engagement. Engagement is not something you do to employees it is something you do with employees. Adopt the line from the field of positive deviancy as part of your engagement rallying cry: never do anything about me without me.

Once a month over the next year on the Halogen Software blog I intend to offer you practical, tactical, and meaningful tips and suggestions on employee engagement. Let’s create a future of employee engagement that benefits all.

On that note, my next article will dig into the 5 W’s of employee engagement. I look forward to sharing it with you.

Your turn: What’s your take on employee engagement? Do you see it as an important driver of organizational performance?

For more on the business value of employee engagement, take a look at this infographic.




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