Apparently, we’re operating within a ‘global epidemic’ of workplace disengagement (Gallup, 2018). It all sounds pretty awful. Where do we go next? We’ve been investing in ’employee engagement’ interventions for at least a couple of decades, and nothing much seems to have shifted. If we’re trying to create sustainable change in our workplaces, and I’m assuming that’s the end game, I’m still pondering to myself, ‘What is engagement?’ and ultimately, ‘How is it going to help us to achieve that?’ ‘Do we need to go back to the drawing board, and ultimately back to the evidence?’

My ponderings remind me of a paper I read years ago, commissioned by Engage for Success, the movement established by the government to drive greater employee engagement at work. The article contains a section written by Rob Briner, Professor of Psychology at Queen Mary’s University, London. You can find the full text here: http://www.cipd.co.uk/hr-resources/research/future-engagement.aspx

I’ve included an excerpt of the article below, which I think sums up the issue well.

Such over- and mis-claiming can be found in many places – particularly in popular management and consultancy writing. Here I will focus, as an example, on some of the claims made by Engage for Success partly because this article was commissioned by Engage for Success and also because the Engage for Success movement is a prominent advocate for engagement and thus makes many claims such as the following.

‘Despite there being some debate about the precise meaning of employee engagement there are three things we know about it: it is measurable; it can be correlated with performance; and it varies from poor to great. Most importantly employers can do a great deal to impact on people’s level of engagement. That is what makes it so important, as a tool for business success.’ Engage for Success, 2013

The first claim made is that engagement measurable. It’s true that engagement, like anything else, can be measured. However, the point, as discussed above, is whether such measures are valid and reliable and of any practical value. There is little publically available good quality evidence to suggest that this is the case. While there is some evidence for the second claim, that engagement is correlated with performance, correlations do not, as discussed earlier, provide valuable information in this context as what we need to know are the answers to cause-effect questions. I am unable to examine the third claim that ‘it varies from poor to great’ as I do not know what this means. Scores on any measure tend to vary from high to low. Again, the question is, do higher or lower scores matter? The final claim made here is that it is possible to intervene to increase engagement… while there is much unverifiable anecdotal evidence and expert opinion to support this there is no good quality evidence.

So, employee engagement is nothing new. And so much of it based on shaky evidence. If we’re pondering ‘where next?’, I wonder if we should look to a couple of fields that have existed all along. It could be that drawing on existing and refined tools and models from the world of OD, and considering evidence from the world of Occupational Psychology, could support how we ‘engage’ and motivate our people?

Let’s consider what OD can bring to the party? OD is based on humanistic principles, and an understanding of human dynamics at work. If I’ve seen one model turn on more lightbulbs in leaders’ and HR folks’ than anything else, it is systems theory. In a nutshell, our organsations are systems, and to create sustainable change, we need to address this through considering all aspects of our organisation’s ‘system’. The people milling about this system; the reason you ultimately exist and continue to function, have their own individual personalities, values, beliefs and motivations, and ultimately, they all interact together in a beautiful (and sometimes not so beautiful) dynamic that constantly changes. It’s important to appreciate this if we are to create workplaces where people are motivated, and where high performance is most likely to occur.

There’s a difference between seeing employee engagement as a programme of interventions, and seeing it as a long-term outcome built through a deep understanding of how people work, and a deep understanding of what success looks like for the organisation and why. Through an OD lens. It’s not simple. It’s not even slightly simple. To pretend we can create ‘business success’ on the basis of employee engagement interventions such as responding to a survey at a snapshot in time, or through free fruit and table tennis tables, is quite frankly, bonkers. I would suggest we need to slow down, stop over-egging our interventions, and seek to pull together a framework for sustainable change.

Lastly, I would suggest we continue to ensure theories, findings and tools from the fields of ‘Organisation development’ and ‘Occupational Psychology’ are more accessible and available to all HR practitioners. I know some organisations are brilliant in achieving this, but I’m not convinced we’ve even begun to scratch the surface of building evidence-based practice, and OD capability within HR. There are so many hugely talented people making great steps in achieving this, in places such as Roffey Park, the CIPD, the Organisation Development Network, and Organisation Development Institute, to name a few. There’s so much more we can do.

Now just to go off and figure out how to practice what I preach…always the tough bit.

You can contact me at kath@heartsparks.co.uk and you can also join the group People Not Paperclips to join a discussion about how we can create workplaces where people are treated like individuals here

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