Amy Armstrong: What’s wrong with engagement?

Dr Armstrong will be chairing the 12th Annual Employee Engagement Summit in March. Here she suggests the three key reasons why organisations may be getting it wrong when it comes to engagement.

Engagement has been part of most board agendas for over a decade now and the topic continues to garner significant interest in both the academic and business communities. If you type ‘employee engagement’ into Google for example, it yields over 26 million results. There has been over 25 years of academic research resulting in over 2000 studies on the topic. Yet, were still not getting it right. In Gallup’s 2013 State of the Global Workplace Report, they found that only 13% of people across 142 countries feel engaged in their work. Worldwide, actively disengaged workers outnumber engaged workers at a rate of 2 to 1. In the UK, it has been estimated that poor engagement is costing the UK economy up to £26 billion each year and the UK has the highest proportion of actively disengaged workers across Western Europe. Actively disengaged workers are damaging to organisations. They are the employees that are vocal about their unhappiness, create higher levels of absenteeism and are those who monopolise managers’ time. If we take the Gallup figures of 13% of people feeling engaged across 142 countries, that means we are sitting on 87% of untapped global human capital. If we are able to understand why engagement levels are so low and figure out what can be done about it, we have the potential to transform the world of work.

In this short article, I am going to suggest that there are three key reasons why we are getting it wrong when it comes to engagement. These reasons are derived, in part, from extant and ongoing research into barriers to engagement that I have had the pleasure to lead on behalf of Engage for Success, a UK movement that is seeking to improve engagement and well-being levels across the UK.
Reason 1: Organisations do not understand what engagement is.

There are over 60 definitions of engagement and no universally accepted definition of what it means. In our current research, highly engaged teams were selected on the basis of engagement scores, but when we lift the lid on these teams, we are finding ‘illusions of engagement’, that is to say, teams describe themselves as engaged, yet when we ask what this means, employees describe job satisfaction not engagement. As one research participant said “I come to work, do what’s needed and what I know I’m capable of and I go home happy”. To us, engagement is much more than job satisfaction. Engagement is an emotionally committing act on behalf of employees, where they choose to go the extra mile and to give the very best of themselves at work.
Reason 2: Leaders are barriers to engagement.

Being an engaging leader is difficult. It is much easier to lead by command and control and it takes a special set of skills and attributes to engage, such as the ability to forge deep trusting relationships; leading with emotion and authenticity and being able to be genuinely open and honest. Research has found that certain leader personalities can lead to disengaging behaviours such as narcissism, arrogance, a lack of empathy and an inability to show personal vulnerability. In the current climate, viability and survival has become the sole focus for many leaders, which makes it easier for them to ignore engagement, or to use economic uncertainty as an excuse for poor leadership behaviours.

Reason 3: The system itself is antithetical to engagement

With its short-termism and focus on quarterly results, it could be argued that the UK corporate system rewards short-term outputs, as opposed to valuing the long-term invisible processes required to build engagement. Within organisations themselves, hierarchy is a clear barrier by creating divisions which prevent honest and free flowing conversations from taking place. Not only are we not all on the same page when it comes to understanding what engagement means (reason 1), the language of engagement is in itself disengaging. For example, the term ‘employee engagement’ implies an ‘us and them’ between senior managers and the rest of the organisation. If we were able to find way of talking about engagement that breaks down power words and implied hierarchies, then we may kick start a process of finding a better way of working that enables the full capabilities of everyone to be released, so that we drive organisational performance and ultimately economic growth for Britain.
References:

Armstrong, A. (2013). Engagement through CEO Eyes, Ashridge Research Report http://engageforsuccess.org/engagement-through-ceo-eyes
Gallup (2013). The State of the Global Workplace. Gallup research report.
Godding, A (2016) Five Warning signs of disengagement in YOUR team, 19 December, LinkedIn.

About Amy Armstrong

Dr Amy Armstrong is Senior Faculty in Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School and will be chairing the 12th Annual Employee Engagement Summit. She is a regular writer and speaker on the topics of engagement, authentic leadership, resilience and compassion at work and has a particular interest in how ‘crucible experiences’ of personal trauma affect who we are and how we lead.

2 Comments - Write a Comment

  1. Dr Armstrong has made a complex situation very clear. Engagement is more than job satisfaction and depends on a different kind of relationship between tiers, teams and individuals. It will be interesting to see if organisation designs such as holacracy and Teal help.

    In the meantime, we’ve used “positive deviance” problem-solving as a way of creating these kind of can-do situations across teams without restructuring. Not only do people find solutions within existing resources, leaders learn how much more their teams can actually deliver. Because there are clear boundaries and it’s evidence based, leaders can let go without losing control. You do need time to work through the process, but it’s proved itself as a means of finding quick behavioural fixes, that can make a big difference to outcomes, and creating genuine engagement.

  2. Thanks for your comments Jane. I’d love to hear more ab out how positive deviance works in practice.

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