Employee engagement is one of those nebulous buzzwords that can be twisted and shaped to mean just about anything. Does it mean employees who are happy? How about hard workers? Or maybe it describes employees who are super passionate about creating a thriving company culture?
The truth is, employee engagement can mean any of these and more. But we have to keep in mind that there's no standard way of engaging that we should expect employees to follow. Each of us engages with our work differently, and that's perfectly okay.
It's important for organizations, and HR representatives in particular, to remember this when they're finding ways to rate, score, or evaluate how many of their employees are engaged as they define it. Otherwise, employees that don’t meet the standard of engagement might hide under the radar (and be passed up for promotions, raises, you name it).
What is employee engagement, really?
Okay, so you're probably wondering how I personally define employee engagement (if you weren't wondering, I'm going to tell you anyway).
In general, employee engagement describes people who are committed to their work and the goals and values of their company. To put it another way, engaged employees show up and are involved, not only because they’re paid to be, but because they’re invested, emotionally or otherwise.
This definition is intentionally a little bit vague because each of us shows up differently, don't we?
For some, their investment in values and goals is practically written on their forehead. They come into work with a smile on their face, coffee in hand, and a palpable excitement about delving in to their day's work. They're active in discussions and team meetings, always ready to offer help or an idea. Their level of commitment is obvious for everyone to see.
Then there are people who show up, quietly do their day's work, maybe they're a little quiet in meetings, but they're clearly involved in the company culture and their level of commitment is unquestionably high albeit not as immediately evident as the person described above.
I introduce these personas not to compare introverts with extroverts, but to show that people who might seem less engaged can be just as engaged as anyone else, though it might take some digging to see what form that engagement takes. Also, these are also just two examples. There are so many more ways that people show up, and any employee engagement evaluation will need to acknowledge that fact or risk pigeon-holing employees.
Employee engagement as a metric for success
Because employee engagement has become such an important metric for defining employee satisfaction/happiness/commitment, not to mention an indicator of a company's success, organizations are rushing to quantify their people's engagement through the ever-present employee engagement survey.
(Cue ominous-sounding music.)
As Mark Murphy smartly points out, a lot of employee engagement surveys fall flat "because most companies have the mistaken belief that the purpose of an employee engagement survey is to measure employee engagement. It’s not; the purpose of conducting a survey is to actually improve employee engagement."
Here's Rajeev Peshawaria, author, with a similar sentiment: "Employee engagement surveys, and the way they're administered, tend to have flaws that either prevent leaders from truly understanding morale at their companies, or from doing much to lift morale if it's low."
On top of this, an employee engagement survey can be highly problematic, depending on the survey author's working definition of employee engagement and their own implicit bias around how engaged employees express it in the workplace. Thankfully, the discourse around employee engagement has led to surveys which are more streamlined and less prone to overly strict or dumbed-down interpretations of what employee engagement means.
Lazlo Bock has some great advice on designing effective employee engagement surveys: "When deciding on survey items (or eliminating others), ask yourself: What would we do immediately if this item scored low? If it’s not actionable, it’s not measuring something that matters."
Nevertheless, I think any employee engagement survey that doesn't take into account the myriad ways in which individual employees engage with the business, their work, and their company values ultimately fails to do its job—which is, or should be, to take those results and find better ways of engaging everyone.
One last word on employee engagement
Maybe this is self-evident, but perhaps it bears repeating: employee engagement matters. Reports show that employees who are invested in their roles are more productive than those who aren’t. According to a Gallup poll, engaged employees are 21% more productive than their less engaged counterparts.
More than anything, engaged employees are engaged not because they’re productive or easy to work with, but because they feel their work matters. They feel valued. And when their successes are recognized, your people will feel like they’ve succeeded in making a meaningful impact at work.
By recognizing how people engage differently with their job/values/goals, you gain a greater understanding of them as individuals but also a greater awareness of what's working in your organization, and what isn't. But more importantly, you learn what your people need to truly give their all and feel passionate about their job, which is so, so valuable.