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The real meaning of employee engagement

There are a lot of definitions of employee engagement out there, and they’re all missing the mark. It’s not that they are inaccurate – it’s that the way we define engagement is making it harder, ironically, for us to solve the problem of disengagement.

Here’s what’s happening: Engagement is most commonly defined as the level of “emotional commitment or connection” an employee has to the organization and its goals. That’s an intuitively satisfying definition. We can certainly imagine someone who is committed and connected working very hard and giving extra effort. It makes sense.

However, there is no direct method to improve someone else’s level of emotional connection and commitment.

It’s internal. You can’t make someone love you. Despite this fact, there is currently a $1 billion industry trying to help companies make this happen anyway. Researchers and consultants have been making cases for their particular models for moving the needle on engagement, which includes things like having a best friend at work, getting consistent feedback from managers, creating a clear career path, etc.

The research has been mostly correlational – for example, the highly engaged employees tend to report more often that they get a lot of feedback from managers (i.e., feedback and engagement are positively correlated). Seeing that correlation, we assume that giving people feedback is a solution to the engagement problem – it will improve that level of emotional commitment and connection.

Except sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, we give them more feedback and it has zero impact on their level of engagement. That’s the problem with correlations.

We haven’t necessarily identified the underlying cause, which is why we’re not moving the collective needle on engagement.

We’re chasing solutions based on correlations, and not understanding the root cause at all. That $1 billion investment is focused on the symptoms, and it’s not working.

In our work at Human Workplaces, we are suggesting a more direct approach. Let’s define engagement in a way that identifies root causes up front: Employee engagement is the level of emotional commitment and connection employees have to an organization, which is driven by how successful they are at work, both personally and organizationally.

Employee engagement is the result of people being consistently successful. Period. When the organization I work for creates an environment where I can be consistently and deeply successful in my own personal work – and on top of that, my individual success contributes clearly to the success of the organization – then I will be a highly engaged employee.

But as soon as you start messing with success, engagement (commitment, connection) is going to decline. Here are some common culprits, by the way:

  • Making people go through unnecessary red tape to get things done.
  • Blocking people from serving the customer because they lack the “authority” in the org chart.
  • Setting your people up to fail by not training them adequately.
  • Missing the ball on big shifts in your operating environment (remember when Kodak missed the digital camera revolution?) so people’s efforts seem futile.

The reason those efforts hurt engagement is because they inhibit both individual and organizational success.

Let’s stop chasing solutions that happen to be correlated with the end result we want. Let’s start addressing the root cause: creating systems that consistently enable more individual and organizational success. The higher engagement will follow.

So, what does that kind of alignment look like in the real world?

Quality Living, Incorporated (QLI) is a nonprofit in Omaha, Nebraska that provides rehabilitation services to individuals with brain and spinal cord injuries. Employee engagement levels at QLI company are through the roof. They have won the “best place to work” award so many times in their market that the contest organizers had to create a special category for them – just so others would have a chance to win. They have different metrics for positive turnover (people who are low performers or a bad fit for the culture) and negative turnover (people they wanted to stay, but left anyway), and their negative turnover is always less than 10 percent, which is remarkable in the healthcare industry, where turnover is closer to 20 percent. We’ve been to their campus – you can see it, feel it, hear it. People love working there.

How do they do it? By focusing rigorously on enabling employees to be successful.

QLI is highlighted in our previous book, When Millennials Take Over, because of its “fluid” or flexible hierarchy. While it has a fairly traditional organizational structure (CEO, VPs, directors, etc.), the way they live this hierarchy is different than most organizations we’ve come across. People at very low levels in the hierarchy have been known to lead meetings and make important decisions, while people at the highest levels will frequently hold back and defer to their colleagues in meetings. But this flexibility is not random. It is based specifically on what drives their success.

Remember that they are doing incredibly difficult work there – teaching people to walk again, or to speak again. In their words, they are “rebuilding shattered lives.” To be successful in that endeavor, they realized early on that the healthcare solutions they are deploying (physical therapy, speech therapy, etc.) are more effective when they are connected to something deep inside the patient – hopes, dreams, aspirations. They need that emotional connection for the therapy to take hold within the patient.

With that success driver in mind, they run their meetings differently than many other organizations. The most important person in the room is the one who knows the most about the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the patient (regardless of their position in the hierarchy).

As one employee said, “There are no lines we can’t cross in terms of creativity and what we can do for our residents.”

To be clear, however, we’re not arguing that decentralization is the key to engagement.

QLI didn’t choose this flexible hierarchy because it sounds cool, or they thought it would bump their engagement numbers. They chose it because it leads directly to their patients receiving more effective care and it empowers employees to be successful.

These are the kinds of efforts and organizational shifts that align individual and organizational success and really move the needle on engagement.

This article is adapted from the new book The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement (For Millennials, Boomers, and Everyone Else).

Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter are authors, consultants, and the founders of workplace culture consulting firm Human Workplaces.

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