There are a couple of topics I've been muddling about the last few weeks, and I've come to realize that there may be a connection.
First, "employee engagement" has been emerging as a hot topic in recent years, most notably as extension of the typical human resource professionals' mantra of "attract and retain." What concerns me somewhat is the tone of conversations that seem to take place about engagement - that it is something that can be managed, controlled or commanded, and that it is some target state that employees need to get to 100% of the time.
In his book Getting Engaged: The New Workplace Loyalty, Tim Rutledge defines engagement as the state of being attracted, committed, and fascinated, which is obviously different than simply being involved, and which Tim also differentiates from satisfied (feeling good, fine, comfortable.) By this definition, engagement includes some strong, positive emotion, and also seems to imply a high degree of focus.
I don't think it's possible for employees to be "engaged" all the time.
Organizational contexts and situations changes constantly, including but not limited to colleagues and managers, project and initiatives, organizational structure, policies, practices, work processes, company direction. Some of these changes attract, and others repel.
As well, I've met very few people who are so good at compartmentalizing as to completely exclude external / personal distractions during work hours - whether ailing family members, looking forward to an upcoming vacation, or obsessing over the state of global economy, ecology, poverty, or conflict.
And engagement as Rutledge defines it is very tiring! I don't imagine that too many people can maintain peak mental/emotional energy on an-ongoing basis without some down-time.
I'm not saying that employee engagement shouldn't be a target. I think employees and companies benefit from staff and managers "attracted, committed, and fascinated," and applying the full extent of their knowledge, and expertise to issues and opportunities in the workplace. I also think that in some cases, other states like involvement or satisfaction are perfectly acceptable and all that can/should be accepted.
So, for the second topic I've been thinking about - how can employee engagement be encouraged (if you agree that it can't be mandated/controlled/managed?)
I suggest managers spend some time thinking about "re-humanizing" the workplace by doing things like:
- balancing accountabilties for achieving outcomes with how employees treat each other
- banishing toxic behaviour in the work place (see McKinsey article Building the Civilized Workplace, and Bob Sutton's work) and treating everyone with dignity and respect
- effective recognition practices
- recognizing a set of cultural practices (behaviours) that engender trust, productive relationships, information sharing, being productively candid, collaboration, learning, innovation and fault tolerance
- rewarding and recognizing managers for creating humanizing work environments that support and encourage everyone to "be there," and apply the full extent of their learning, knowledge and experience to the work at hand
- referring to people by name and not purely as aggregated numbers on a spreadsheet so as not to disengage from the human consequences of decisions and actions