Are all forms of employee engagement beneficial?

Extrapolating from Webster’s definition of ‘engage,’ the author posits that some manifestations can damage an organization, while others help it thrive in obscure ways.

Engagement is not a one-way, one-size-fits-all answer to the fearsome challenges that businesses face today.

Having worked in business communication for nearly 20 years, I’ve found that treating it as a single objective—subjecting managers to intense pressure to “increase engagement”—is counterproductive, because employees engage in a variety of ways.

Even with big companies such as KPMG openly questioning the value of employee engagement surveys, the pursuit of a singular goal of “higher engagement” has retained much of its popularity. Commonly held beliefs sustain the engagement juggernaut:

  • Employee engagement is about improving employee morale, commitment, satisfaction and employee productivity.
  • Employee engagement is linear, starting at a point of “zero” or “disengaged,” and moving progressively upward to ”engaged,” with all employees falling somewhere on that scale.
  • Employee engagement is about employees, period.
  • Employee engagement is the state that all companies should pursue for all employees. Companies that reject this view are bad, wrong and unenlightened.

A different view

Even though these are common themes, and given that many new definitions offered by gurus in the field reflect those themes, I chose to look for an alternative perspective. Here’s how Webster’s Dictionary defines “engage”:

  • to pledge oneself : PROMISE : GUARANTEE
  • to begin and carry on an enterprise or activity
  • to take part : PARTICIPATE
  • to give attention to something : DEAL
  • to enter into conflict or battle
  • to come together and interlock (as of machinery parts) : be or become in gear

Building on Webster’s definition, an alternative view of engagement emerges:

  • There is no such thing as “disengagement,” as long as an individual has any involvement with an organization.
  • Engagement is neither a virtue nor a vice, but merely a characterization of the nature and intensity of one’s relationship with an organization.

Six forms of engagement

Looking at Webster’s definition, I’ve identified six distinct forms of “engagement” reflecting different motivations and producing distinct types of relationships:

  • The engagement of the “rifle”—battle: active opposition
  • The engagement of the “mat”—wrestling: active disagreement, but within a productive context
  • The engagement of the “gearshift”—mechanical: productivity without resistance or grief
  • The engagement of the “ring”—mutual, heartfelt, emotional commitment
  • The engagement of the “hawk”—reward seeking: mercenary and focused on individual outcomes
  • The engagement of the “artist”—perfection seeking, focused on fulfilling and developing personal standards

The engagement of the rifle

Current models of “engagement” might consider active hostility, opposition or sabotage indicative of “disengaged” employees (or for that matter, “disengaged” managers or corporate alumni).

These people are highly engaged. They care about the organization, and they are determined to pay it back for any real or imagined offenses.

The implications of this “engagement of the rifle” can be profound; it can undermine the enthusiasm of fellow staff members. These employees can make claims about product and service quality within their social networks, and in company towns they can spread rumors that can undermine the stability of the company/community relationship. Even employees who may seem “apathetic” might go home and moan to their partners, who then spread rumors on their behalf.

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What’s important about looking at the “engagement of the rifle” is not simply that people so engaged are aggressive and hostile. Instead, they demonstrate a level and intensity of engagement that can be channeled and harnessed in a more appropriate direction.

For many organizations, finding a way to identify, address and channel “rifle-engagement” more productively could be the engagement effort they need most.

The engagement of the mat

Some see a wrestling match as a kind of battle akin to that fought with rifles. There are, however, two major differences: Wrestling is physically intense but not lethal, and it is a form of physical engagement that takes place within the context of established boundaries and rules.

Disagreements within organizations can bring friction, discord and disruption. Many such disagreements yield or prompt the innovations, realizations and realignments that make organizations more responsive to customers, more efficient to operate and more honest places in which to work.

Many organizations want their people to be engaged on the mat. They seek new opportunities, hope to reach ambitious targets with fewer resources and desperately desire internal challenge, often bringing in external support for framing those challenges.

Does anyone pay McKinsey to come into an organization and sing the “Happy” song? For some organizations, the engagement approach they might need most involves creating, licensing and inspiring staff to grapple with the organization’s challenges rather than accepting the status quo.

The engagement of the gearshift

For many people, work is about going to the plant or the office, doing everything that comes across the desk to meet with their supervisor’s consent, and going home and getting on with the rest of their lives.

Some may complain that this is a “disengaged” way to work, but examined closely, it’s a mechanical form of engagement—the person comes into the process, does his/her bit and exits the process at day’s end.

This kind of engagement and the organizations that foster it are heavily criticized by those who see “engagement” as a moral imperative that must be brought by force to all organizations.

The “engagement of the gearshift” endures because some employees do not want jobs or positions that interfere with their non-work lives: They want to go to work, do their jobs, go home and devote their mental energy to their children, churches, activities or communities.

This is not to say that the “engagement of the gearshift” must be purely one way and transactional. Effective engagement within such organizations can be built out of an honest understanding of organizational, employee and manager ambitions, and by identifying opportunities where participation can strengthen the organization’s commercial offerings or production processes.

The engagement of the hawk/the engagement of the artist

In a related concept to the transactional engagement of the gearshift, the employee focuses on individually oriented rewards rather than a long-term relationship with the organization. The hawk is something of a mercenary, seeking wins and one-off paychecks to take in from a confirmed kill, er, success.

The artist is something of a prima donna, working to fulfill one’s own sense of perfection and, perhaps, to draw on the host organization for due recognition of the quality his or her work or leadership.

In a world where the contractor and embedded consultant play an increasingly important internal role in organizations, engagement with people belonging to either of these two species tends to be highly individualized, thus challenging an overall engagement framework that tends to exalt long-term mutual harmony, even if it is incapable of sustainably delivering it.

The engagement of the ring

With apologies to JRR Tolkien, we now come to “the engagement of the ring”—the level of exceptional emotional commitment, supernormal productivity and unbounded corporate enthusiasm sought by many who speak of “employee engagement.”

In seeking the “engagement rings” of their staffs, however, are organizations willing to wear those rings forever? Indeed, are organizations willing to offer anything at all?

If the ultimate form of “engagement” is a state of mutual happiness and harmony in an organization, will it create cultures that stifle dissent, innovation and change? If engagement is about “extraordinary mutual commitment” and there are deep senses of obligation on both sides, can such an organization withstand competition from companies whose approaches are honest but far more flexible?

What happens when those organizations seek more flexibility and fewer obligations? Will the ensuing sense of betrayal result in the “engagement of the rifle”?

I do see companies for whom “the engagement of the ring” makes sense—companies in which personal involvement in the product or the process of delivering it makes it a unique, premium offering. Effectively achieving “engagement of the ring” needs to balance the exceptional commitment sought from its managers and staff with sustained and sustainable commitment from the organization that withstands competitive and economic challenges.

In closing

I propose the “six forms of engagement” to challenge the pervasive view that “employee engagement” is a linear idea consisting of good (engaged), bad (apathetic or disengaged) and ugly (actively disengaged) people.

People engage in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons. Organizations engage in varied ways as well. Recognizing, respecting and, above all, optimizing this diversity—makes a lot more sense than acting as if the only valid form of engagement is one that involves a “ring.”

Mike Klein is a consultant, author and blogger, and is the owner of Changing The Terms. A version of this article previously appeared on LinkedIn.

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