Engagement – don’t kid yourself it’s the answer

Well I guess it depends on the question you’re asking. And let’s make something clear – we know and believe that engagement is a key component for high performance. As well as being a good thing, that’s also the problem. It’s a component, not the whole thing.

Engagement does something simple – it encourages discretionary effort and that can only be good – without it, at best you’ll get compliance and that’s never going to help you outperform the competition. History is littered with stories of how engaged citizens, with something to fight for, have defeated well-paid mercenaries.

It also speaks to one of the main drivers of human motivation – the desire to be connected to – or engaged with – some higher purpose and so it does that too. So what’s the problem? Well there are (at least) three.

Firstly, engagement, contrary to what lots of organisations seem to believe, is not a project or something you “do” to other people. You don’t engage people, you create an environment where people have every opportunity to connect with you, your business, its soul and its purpose. It’s a behaviour, not a process or a project.

Secondly, from what we see, you’d be forgiven for thinking that engagement is a well understood and tightly defined process that any company can follow and get the result. It’s as if we’ve learned to believe that it’s a bit like employment law. You do this, you say that, you follow that process and hey presto – everyone’s engaged!

Those language geeks amongst you will have also spotted that there’s a deletion that’s taken place when we talk about engagement – engagement to or with what? Engagement doesn’t exist in isolation – so leaders who think they can buy an off the shelf engagement toolkit without doing the hard yards of knowing what their culture is (or should be) and as a result being able to answer the question “what do we want our people to feel engaged with? are going to a) spend a fortune and b) be left wondering why it hasn’t had the impact they expected. Though the managers who led the project will probably have moved on by then and can feel happy that they’ve ticked the “Have you done engagement?” box, so that’s OK.

Thirdly, there’s a whole lot of stuff that we know is vital for high performance that engagement doesn’t really touch or does so only tangentially – the other vital components. Here’s just a few:

You can know what’s expected of you and have your progress discussed (classic engagement) yet the goals may not harness motivation and discussing progress is very different from knowing what you are going to start, stop and continue doing as a result

Having strengths recognised and getting praise is a good start (engagement) though it doesn’t really touch strengths exploitation and a culture that encourages performers to crave performance feedback whatever form it takes (high performance). Of course having strengths recognised is useful (engagement) though the real difference comes from when strengths are exploited in a planned, proactive and positive way (high performance)

Knowing your opinions count, having a best friend at work and having opportunities to grow and learn (engagement) will make somewhere nice to work but fail to address in enough detail key areas powerful for performance as having opportunities to develop mental strength, physical vitality and focused development that directly relates to the relevance and purpose of the role.

Finally, you could get great results in engagement surveys and have no detailed plan to deliver strategy, no skilled coaches, no collective role clarity, no embracing of change and no clear competition and preparation schedules.

In summary, lots of engagement approaches seem to ensure a place is not unpleasant to work. That’s a good starting point but not enough to help ensure high performance. For that, you need to do more than be a great place to work. Though if you’re after an MBA in lazy leadership, it might do the trick.