The Overselling of Engagement

Employee engagement bombards me at workshops, conferences, seminars, social media forums, in journal articles, survey reports and conference room presentations.

Everybody’s talking about it. Most don’t know what they’re talking about.

When it’s managed well, the engagement of people can take organizations to unheard of heights. When it’s not–and it usually isn’t–it drains finite resources. Companies spend millions, presumably to engage people. Many have little or nothing to show for it.

I want to help put an end to this nonsense.

Engagement became part of my world on January 17, 1994, when the Northridge Earthquake registered 6.7 on the Richter scale north of Los Angeles. The people at GTE, then a client and the largest independent telephone company in the U.S., sprang into action, rushing generators, food, clothing and shelter to thousands of people who needed help. They performed at unheard of levels, bypassing purchase orders and cumbersome approvals from the bosses.

A few weeks later, I received a call asking if I would conduct a study to identify how GTE could capture some of what it did in the Northridge emergency and apply it in their daily work lives.

I spent a week on site, studying the phenomenon my client described. I interviewed GTE leaders and conducted focus groups with employees on the ground. After reviewing my work and recommendations with GTE, I presented my information to a small team of some of the best and brightest people performance consultants at Towers Perrin, where I was a principal and leader of a change management consulting center of excellence.

We couldn’t replicate the event of course, nor could people sustain the performance levels under which they operated during the crisis. But what could we learn from the event in order to help GTE perform at higher levels for their customers in the future?

Several months later, we had developed a process that captured the best of the GTE experience and was replicatable in the non-crisis world. We called it Employee Engagement and defined it as a condition where people voluntarily use their discretionary effort to improve the business. When they have options, engaged people will select the action that helps the organization succeed.

We tested the process with several clients. From our discussions with the GTE people and our own experiences, we determined that four conditions were required for people to be actively engaged.

  1. There needs to be clear line of sight between what people do and the results they can influence.
  2. People need varying degrees of autonomy or the ability to make decisions that influence their work. Autonomy comes in part through involvement. Results won’t change unless people change the way they do work.
  3. People need the right information at the right time so they can make the right decisions and take the right actions to improve the business; and
  4. People need to understand why it’s in their best interests to help the business succeed. Whether it was the intrinsic satisfaction of filling a purpose at Northridge or the promise of higher pay, there needs to be a “what’s in it for me (WIIFM)” factor.

Variations on the engagement theme have been adopted over time, but lately, some of the core ideas have been lost in translation. Engagement has become a concept that gives leaders an excuse for doing whatever is easy for them to do.

One company leader I spoke to recently said they measure engagement by the number of meetings people attended. Another leader measures engagement by the number of suggestions people make. Most companies have no idea what it’s about and some don’t act as though they really care. They just blindly check off the box and tell their boss the people are engaged.

Here’s some of the conventional wisdom about engagement and actual reality to compare. It’s my hope that the Leadership Report readers will never again confuse the term! If you hear someone defining it incorrectly, slap their hand and then forward this list.

Belief: Engaged people will always do the right things.
Reality: It depends on your definition of right. Suicide bombers are engaged. Engagement needs to be carefully directed at what will help your organization succeed.

: We need to engage all of our people.
Reality: No. Not all aspects of a business affect top and bottom line results equally. And weaknesses in some areas generally have a greater impact on overall performance than others. So “engaging the organization” isn’t as prudent as engaging people where the performance most needs to rise. Focus where you’ll get your greatest return.

: Our goal is to engage our people–to increase our engagement scores.
Reality: No, your goal is to improve your business. Engagement is a means to an end. It’s not an end unto itself. There’s a cost to engaging people. If you spend money to engage people with no gain that’s greater than your cost, you haven’t created value. You’ve drained value.

: Engagement scores are leading indicators of organizational performance.
Reality: Increasing overall engagement scores will not necessarily improve business results. I’ve seen high engagement scores at a well-known technology company in Silicon Valley that had serious performance issues. However, when you focus engagement efforts on specific performance targets, engagement scores will cause performance to rise. Only then will engagement serve as a leading indicator.

: There needs to be an app for engagement. Or maybe digital signage will do it. Or maybe Yammer or Twitter or something easy will make it all happen.
Reality: Yeah, sure! How about leadership!


  1. Right on target, as usual. Many ways to define engagement, but I start with commitment to staying; feeling positive about the mission, the work, and the work environment; and being supported and valued. And of course (as you suggest in your final reality check) that’s all about leadership.

    1. Yes, Richard, I agree. Commitment was the term that led to engagement. It was the first description that went beyond the happiness index which of course meant nothing but that. I’m sure we both recall the number of companies where happy people sat around watching their company go down the tubes.

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