RIP Employee Engagement - we don't think so!

May 9, 2017

There’s been a flurry of posts recently about how Employee Engagement has had its day and is about ready to be towed off to the scrapyard along with previous fads like job satisfaction. This is no surprise; employee engagement has been gaining ground long enough for people to find out it is not a miracle cure.


As the number of articles predicting its demise starts to rise, people inevitably start looking for the next panacea but, as Marshall Goldsmith points out in the Linkedin  article ‘Employee Engagement Isn’t Working. Now What?’ it is not at all clear what the next miracle will be.


 One theme is appearing more and more frequently – a developing focus on conversations. Take Rebecca Knight’s piece in Harvard Business Review, for example. She quotes Elizabeth Saunders, author of How to Invest Your Time Like Money as saying “One-on-ones are one of the most important productivity tools you have as a manager.’  She says this is partly because “from a rapport point of view, they are how you show employees that you value them and care about them.”


Rebecca provides some useful advice for managers like ‘Don’t cancel – show the employee they have priority by turning up on time,’ and ‘begin each meeting by sharing a win,’ which is a good start, but there’s a whole lot more to say about how to make on-to-ones work. If you have ever wanted some sharper tools to use in a one-to-one meeting please read our ebook The Manager’s Toolkit, which contains the key frameworks for holding conversations that work.


Conversations are not an end in themselves, though – we still need employees to feel connected to their work, so they want to come in and do it well. So why would they do this? One popular supposition is that they come for the money, but that is not so – we have asked a large number of employees what they like about work at its best and they answer ‘money’ is vanishingly rare.


Overwhelmingly, employees consider the best times at work to be those when they are working with people they know well and get on with; when they are being stretched but supported; when they are doing things that are interesting and useful to other people, and when those tasks are clearly defined and they have the resources to do them. The result is that they are keen to come in to work and feel satisfied at having done well at the end of the day – and they are happy to come in again the next day.


Now, that’s a whole bunch of human cognitive and emotional needs met in one place, so it’s not surprising that people who experience this sort of thing are more keen on their work – more engaged as we have been used to saying. So why is an idea as obviously useful as engagement now in danger of extinction?


The answer is that making people happier at work will never go out of fashion for good employers, because they recognise it is the key to productivity, loyalty and so much else. But engagement is an abstract idea; you can’t do it. And when you can’t do something it is eventually doomed, because the human brain rarely becomes motivated by an abstract concept.


We are happy to engage directly with defined tasks and physical objects, particularly if it meets our needs to do so, so if you give a thirsty person a spade and show them where water will be found you can be pretty certain they’ll do some digging. But ask them to a workshop on ‘engagement’ and unless you unpack the idea first the level of ‘engagement’ in the idea will be low..

So the decline of employee engagement is sad but completely predictable – it’s why we have consistently argued that it is not enough to say that people can have their own definitions of engagement, or even that it’s fine to have no definition at all as long as you kind-of-know what you think it is.


But you – yes you – can rescue the concept in your own organisation today by going back to first principles, forgetting the fancy words and waffle, and focusing on what makes satisfactory work – do your employees:

  • know what they are supposed to be doing,

  • have the resources to do it, and

  • actually want to be there.

We can help you find out who needs what to get into that happy, motivated and, yes, engaged state – try WeThrive free today and  you’ll see how easy it can be to bring unseen causes of stress, unhappiness and under-performance out into the open so you can do something about them.


PS Would anyone like a bet on what the next fad to rise and fall will  be? I would put money on Gamification; we’ll be working with the idea for a decade or so, and then someone will point out that Gamification per se is a hollow concept. Shame, because the idea of making work activities interesting and even fun is not a bad one, but that’s what happens when you hitch your star to a will o’the wisp. To mix another metaphor.


This is an edited version of a post originally published on

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