Employee Engagement: Is it a luxury?

So, is employee engagement a luxury? Well that might depend on your definition of luxury. My dictionary describes luxury as ‘thing desirable for comfort and enjoyment but not indispensable’. It might also depend on your definition of engagement. Here, there are more  options in my dictionary: bind by contract, pledge oneself, hire, take part in, and bring or come into conflict with enemy.

Language is a funny thing. The definitions in my dictionary seem to have a generally negative feel to them in the context of employee engagement. Ironically, those definitions may actually be nearer to the experience many employees have on the ground. So do companies really believe that employee engagement is dispensable?

Gallop research, over many years, has consistently shown that engaged employees are more productive employees. They demonstrate a clear link between engagement and performance suggesting that upper quartile companies in their index grow earnings per share 3.9 times faster than lower quartile companies.

Many people are calling for employee engagement to be a core strategy for businesses. Seeking high levels of employee involvement and recognition are talked about as key business drivers. But does anything really change? HR departments are under pressure to pull the employee engagement rabbit out of the hat; but as I heard someone say on the radio this week, that’s a trick; an illusion. The only reason a magician can pull a rabbit out of a hat is because they have put the rabbit in the hat in the first place.

There is no denying the link between engagement levels and performance. There are certainly moves to take a more strategic approach. Could it work?

I am lucky enough to work with many leaders and managers of businesses across a wide range of geographies and business sectors, often involving aspects of communication. The subject of active listening often crops up, and there is nothing wrong with that. Active listening contains useful ideas, however, one challenge I frequently raise is my concern that people have become much better at appearing to listen. They nod and grunt in appropriate places, yet still fail to actually listen; really listen to what others are saying.

The same thing may be true about the need for engagement. Lots of activity takes place to implement a strategic approach, but it risks being an illusion (to return to my earlier metaphor) which is trying to convince employees that they are engaged. In reality there may be no rabbit in the hat. Who puts the rabbit in? Managers. When push comes to shove it is an employee’s relationship with their manager that counts. Great managers drive engagement; they are the rabbit.

All too often, managers still pursue task and control strategies in their day to day practice. They re-enforce the ‘bind by contract’ or engage with the enemy definitions by choosing to focus much more strongly on effort rather than result. Take the recent decision by Yahoo to stop all home working and insist everyone must attend at the office. It seems a somewhat draconian sledge hammer to crack a nut.

Employee engagement is a hearts and minds, beliefs and values kind of thing. It is not a luxury and shouldn’t be a scare commodity, but you do need great rabbits to make it work.


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