Employee Engagement is not a “program”


By: Bob Kelleher

Employee Engagement is more than a program; it entails a cultural shift — a change in how things are done and communicated from the top to the bottom of an organization. Engagement cannot be shunted to the end of every meeting, where it will stand a higher chance of being given a short shrift. It’s no one person’s job; it is an ongoing part of business. And after you embark on systemic employee engagement, there is no finish line – it’s a journey without a destination.

Defining Employee Engagement
So, what is employee engagement, anyway? One common definition, which has become the gold standard, describes employee engagement as “the capture of discretionary effort.” (discretionary efforts refers to employees going above and beyond. This is in contrast to the ordinary effort required to simply get the job done without attracting negative attention.)

Other definitions or descriptions you’re likely to hear include the following:

  • The capture of an employee’s head and heart
  • Employees who have their hearts and minds in the business
  • Intellectual understanding and emotional commitment
  • Employees who go the extra mile in loyalty and ambassadorship
  • Employees who say, stay, and strive
  • Employees who think and act as business people

My favorite definition, though, is my own:

  • Employee Engagement is the mutual commitment between an organization and an employee, in which the organization helps the employee meet his or her potential and the employee helps the organization meet its goals.

This mutual commitment is what truly defines employee engagement and results in discretionary effort. It’s also what makes employee engagement a win-win for both the employer and the employee.

Oftentimes, people confuse employees engagement with employees satisfaction. This is a mistake. You can always throw money around or offer perks to boost employee satisfaction. But satisfied and engaged are two very different things. Simply put, engagement boosts performance, while satisfaction does not. The last thing you as an employer want is a satisfied but under performing employee — or worse, a whole cadre of satisfied employees in an under performing business! Don’t get me wrong: Having a bunch of happy and satisfied employees walking around is a-okay. Employee satisfaction can very well be an outcome of an excellent company culture. But unlike employee engagement, it shouldn’t be your goal per se.

Engagement is not an end in itself. It’s not about having things (for example, the best benefit program, biggest workstations, or the highest bonus checks). It’s not even about instituting a training program or a flexible work week. Successful engagement is about acknowledging that a business is, in essence, like a society. When everyone pulls together with a common purpose, both its citizens and its economy will thrive. Engagement is about people’s heads as well as their hearts.

To sum up, employee engagement is about

  • Mutual commitment between the company and employees
  • People
  • Relationships
  • Alignments
  • Shared purpose for creating the future together
  • Success of the business and its employees
  • Work environment and culture
  • Continuous communication
  • Opportunities for performers (and consequences for non-performers)
  • development staff

Employee engagement is not about

  • Things
  • Having the best of every amenity
  • Avoiding making tough decisions
  • Pleasing all the people all the time


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