Ever since William and Kate made their announcement, I’ve been pondering the language of employee engagement.

I’ve been really struck how businesses use words like ‘engagement’, which are full of personal and emotional meaning, to describe contractual and corporate relationships.

And it also struck me that this is a fundamental conflict.

Whilst I’m not suggesting that businesses whisk every employee off to a mud hut in Africa for an intimate tete-a-tete, handing over a massive rock, there is no question that if we want to ‘engage’ employees fully, it means getting personal.

Otherwise, I think we’re duping ourselves into thinking that through our so called employee engagement programmes we’ve established a close and enduring bond with an employee, which is going to lead to that other wonderfully redolent and inappropriately used word – loyalty.

When in reality what we’ve done is to go through a formal and formulaic dance, which requires no real conviction to have the appearance of ‘engagement’, but which in practice, lacks any emotion or ‘passion’ at all – that other word which corporates are increasingly wanting to see reflected in employee behaviour.

Engagement has become a process. I suppose to a certain extent William and Kate’s engagement is also a process. But of course, with a few fundamental differences.

I was talking a few days ago to someone who felt completely disengaged from their current job, and who had been describing a previous job where they had felt complete commitment.

He told me about how at the previous company, he had been, in his own words, ‘taken under the wing’ of a very capable manager, who recognised his hunger for opportunity and fed it. That manager mentored this person, gave them scope to work on new projects and stretch their own wings.

This person described this previous job and this previous manager in magical and emotive terms.

It made me think that businesses wouldn’t need special ‘employee engagement’ programmes and processes if they had managers who were prepared to take, and capable of taking, on this very special relationship with their team without over-stepping bounds which are increasingly tightly drawn.

This relationship has many components:

  • It protects and gives opportunity
  • It teaches and it strengthens
  • It knows when to challenge and test
  • It also knows when it has become redundant, when the protection, mentoring and support are no longer required

Ironically, it’s a relationship that is more akin to parenting that the meeting of equals suggested by the word, ‘engagement’.

And it struck me how personal the workplace truly is and needs to be in order to be completely effective, in order to ‘engage’ employees to the higher purpose of a business.

Now for some people, being personal within a working relationship is second nature. The great manager that my friend was telling me about had probably never been trained to ‘engage’ people in the way that she did. It was just who she was.

Similarly, managers who find it difficult to motivate teams often find it hard to acquire these skills. They never learn to be personal – they find it difficult and awkward.

And other managers get too personal, which of course can lead to other HR issues and have massive legal implications.

So Will and Kate I guess have it easy. They just had to follow tried and tested conventions of how two people commit to each other.

It’s harder for business. Engaging employees isn’t just a process – it’s a skill and a mindset.

Getting the language right is key, but it’s about the right actions too.

It’s about leadership, mentoring and support as much as it’s about vision, motivation, passion.