Stop engaging your employees, and start involving them

Before we talk about employee engagement, let’s first establish a common definition of what that actually means. At its most basic, employee engagement is a culture change programme that’s meant to support the development of the brand and customer experience. The shape may look different from one organisation to another, but that’s the gist of it.

However, most traditional employee engagement programmes are far from effective, as numerous studies have shown that up to 70% of these programmes fail, and that only a small percentage of employees are truly engaged. So what does it actually mean to be engaged? And is engagement enough to create the mindset changes that these programmes typically aim to achieve?

Conventional approaches to employee engagement focus on communication- and training-led initiatives to “inspire, enable, and transform employee mindsets”…or something to that effect, but that’s not enough. All too often, these are dry, top-down, ‘push’ initiatives that tend to fizzle out surprisingly quick, and often fail to improve business results in any significant way.

A simple explanation for this is that you cannot bring about a change in culture by simply talking about it; you actually have to change things. I discussed this in a previous post, in which I made the point that to improve the brand and customer experience, an organisation has to challenge, change, and adapt its way of doing things accordingly. You cannot expect to create a new/better external experience if you don’t weed out and change internal old ways of thinking that aren’t suited for the realities of today’s markets. While the scale of change for each organisation will obviously vary from one to the next, external change requires internal change first.

My view of employee engagement is that it’s ultimately about creating an organisation where everyone is aligned behind a shared sense of purpose. Where teams understand their role within the bigger picture, and are able to calibrate their activities for the common good of the organisation. Where communications are not meant to just inform teams, but rather keep them involved and invested in the success of the whole. Where every team member can contribute his/her individual knowledge, experience, and perspective towards the success of the whole. Where change is not seen as daunting, but is welcomed and embraced by all.

Quite simply, such an outcome can never be achieved solely through communications and training. To bring about real change, organisations have to involve their employees throughout the entire change process to give them a sense of ownership and choice in developing and evolving the organisation’s culture. In turn, employees become far more committed to the positive outcome of the culture change programme (almost by a factor of five to one*).

So let’s stop talking about engaging employees, because it’s easy to argue the case that communications and training engages employees, and tick that box…but that’s just not good enough. Let’s start involving them, and looking for new and better ways of working together as a team.

Remember, by changing nothing, nothing will change.


*Ellen J. Langer, “The illusion of control,” in Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases


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