Too little engagement or the failure of manipulation ?

Summary : tomorrow’s enterprise, 2.0, social or whatever needs more engagement from employees. But there’s a problem : everything show they’re less and less engagement. Worrying but logical, depending on what one really means by engagement. As a matter of fact, considering the lack of will to undertake the needed change, the word engagement is more and more lead astray to come down to making people take all the weight and risks of change without support, guarantee or anything in return.

So there’s not a week without a new survey telling that employees are more and more disengaged, what’s important and worrying for many reasons.

Because engagement impacts motivation. Because organizations are willing to implement approaches that rely more and more on participation and that participation can’t be mandated and depends on engagement. Because one can’t expect a disengaged¬† employee to do the best for customers, to go the extra mile and do a little bit more than what can be expected from him in a service and customer driven economy.

Long story short : employees are disengaged and that’s serious for many reasons.

But what is this engagement that’s being measured ? As a matter of fact studies are proliferating but there’s few things on what engagement is, as if it was a given.

So I started to investigate on wikipedia. In french first (what shows to what extent culture matters).

The first definition I found was about social psychology. It defines engagement as the consequence of an action on behaviors and attitudes. Engagement leads to escalation of commitment. That’s interesting but is not exactly what I was looking for. Anyway, it’s interesting to note that the engagement we’re talking about is supposed to cause attitudes and behaviors while this one locks people in, based on their past decisions. It’s about making people prisoners of their logic while. It would be funny to discuss to what extent the two approaches are the same, engagement being used to manipulate people and lock them in the logic we want them to adopt.

Then I found this one, saying that engagement is a legal act through which one accepts to participate in something provided he gets paid in compensation. Nothing to do my point but, with a little cynicism, we can note that the engagement we’re talking about aims at getting more from people, more than their contractual commitment…without anything in return except being said “thank you” (at best).

So, and even if the two above mentioned points deserve discussion, I end up on the english version on wikipedia, where I found something on “Employee engagement“.

Employee engagement, also called worker engagement, is a business management concept. An “engaged employee” is one who is fully involved in, and enthusiastic about their work, and thus will act in a way that furthers their organization‘s interests. According to Scarlett Surveys, “Employee Engagement is a measurable degree of an employee’s positive or negative emotional attachment to their job, colleagues and organization which profoundly influences their willingness to learn and perform at work”. Thus engagement is distinctively different from employee satisfaction, motivation and organisational culture.

That’s what I was looking for. But was does it mean ?

The reason why engagement became so important is that, in the old taylorian system, people used to come, do their job, and leave back home. Today, people are asked to participate, be the voice and image of their employer, use their network to help their employer. All these things rely on people’s willing. So, obviously, only engaged employees will go that extra mile, be open and positive in their relationships with people inside and outside the organization, will act as promoters.

That said, it all depends on what one means by engagement and the hidden agenda that may hide behind, even unconsciously.

I’m surprised to read that 60, 70, or even 80% of employees are not engaged. According to what I see everyday in many organizations, they are attached to their employer and get up in the morning with the desire of doing their best at work.

But another approach is possible, considering that what I said in the previous paragraph is not enough. That enough is not enough.

– engagement is, on top of one’s work; to share, participate, help others (ideally not on one’s work time….)

– engagement is turning oneself into a sandwich man on Facebook to promote one’s employer’s products.

– engagement means going against what your managers expects from you, even against your personal interest, for the good of the collective

– engagement, in the end, means taking it upon oneself, at one’s own risk, to solve all the problems the organization generates and do very little to solve.

As a matter of fact, this is how things are. Employees are between two world, one foot in each. One is formal and organized. In this world they have missions, objectives and they are paid for achieving them. The other is informal, tacit, and contributes more and more to the success of the first. In this world they’re asked to participate but are paid with “thank you”. In the first they’re told that times are hard, that efforts and sacrifices are needed, that there’s no hope of a raise or any bonus this year and even that their job is at risk. In the second they’re asked to participate more and more.

So, at this time, there’s no satisfying business model for employees in the “tommorow’s enterprise”. And, as the enterprise is not about to change as a system, it seems that’s engagement is used to name an emerging trend that can be summed up in one sentence : “everything’s changing outside, we don’t want to change inside, so do the splits at your own risk. But if you get caught we won’t cover for you”. That’s all the problem of the “second economy, which is creating value for those who organize it, not for those who participate and make it work.

To some extent what is called disengagement can even be seen as a good thing : employees are becoming intrapreneurs, and as they take more risk they want more support, guarantees and get the fruits of their work.

So an engagement that means integrity, motivation, seriousness is ok. But if it’s used as the fig-leaf that hides the lack of questioning within organizations, makes employees assume the weight and risk of change and carry the burden of corporate blindness while enterprises are washing their hands, if it’s a coherence substitute, then I propose to change the conclusion of these studies. As a matter of fact, the large majority of employees is motivated but lucid and not reckless.

Engagement is something that’s built over time. That’s the consequence of an HR and management politic, not of an exhortation of changing in a system which refuses to change itself. That’s a performance lever, not a replacement for lack of transformation plan.