Nobody wants to be engaged

I once said that “nothing says past it” more than Human Capital Management.

I was wrong.

Don’t worry, I haven’t suddenly become a HCM groupie.

Far from it…..

I was wrong because NOTHING says past it more than the term “Employee Engagement”.

I recently tweeted that “every time I hear this term another part of me dies“…so you can imagine what writing about it does to me.

But sometimes I just can’t help myself. We all have our crosses to bear.

I have a confession. Never…..absolutely NEVER in my life have I woken up and thought….”I wish I was more engaged”. Moreover, I can guarantee that there is not a single employee within your organisation that has either.

Engagement doesn’t exist. Engagement is the sort of term a consultant would create. And then claim it was measurable and sell it at massively inflated amounts to a profession that was insecure and desperate to find some data to prove that they were both relevant and commercial.

I have no idea where they would find a profession like that. Do you?

Please. Let’s stop.

Let’s grow up.

Let’s be human.

For generations people worked for the same companies. They worked there because the organisations valued them, they treated them well, they gave them security, they gave them incentives to stay. But, they NEVER TALKED ABOUT ENGAGEMENT.

Engagement doesn’t replace a decent pension scheme, engagement doesn’t pay the mortgage on your house, engagement doesn’t provide job security.

Engagement is a term that we create to apologise for using people to generate profit.

We need to stop focussing on vacuous self-created concepts that are completely alien to the vast majority of human beings. We need to start talking about the things that matter to people. Real people.

Call me uncool, call me old-fashioned. Call me naïve.

I’m ok with that.

You aim for engaged employees…..I’ll do what’s right for my people and treat them like valued grown ups.

I think they deserve that.


  1. andyheadworth · April 15, 2013

    As a member of the group you so despise – consultants – I get to speak to a wide range of companies. I agree with you that engagement is not what many employees want (or think they want!). In my experiences what they actually want is regular information (because most of the time they just don’t get it!).
    Rather than focusing on the somewhat ‘mythical’ E word, focusing on good internal communications – whatever that needs to be for the company in question – is far better than trying to focus on engagement.

    • Neil · April 25, 2013

      Spot on sir.

  2. Rachel Fawcett · April 15, 2013

    At the risk of being accused of being past it, I think you are probably missing the point altogether. No-one gets up and thinks “I want to be more engaged”, but if it is understood properly and is then used properly engagement is actually damned powerful. The problem comes when people pick up a buzz word and don’t know how to make it real. The stuff you talk about is important – because to be engaged, you need to feel informed, treated fairly and valued. Amongst other things (and there are many other things….) It is a pretty useful way of making sure of you work on the culture your people work in and it is also a pretty powerul way of getting executive attention on “soft fluffy” stuff. So if you don’t need it, that is fine. Don’t use it. But please don’t discredit it because you don’t get it. You just make it even harder for the rest of us who use it well and, as a consequence, are making a difference.

    • Neil · April 25, 2013

      I do get it Rachel, which is why I feel I can comment on it. I just don’t agree with you.

  3. @stevehearsum · April 15, 2013

    The term ‘engagement’ is one of my pet hates as well – thanks for the pithy post, Neil. I don’t want someone to engage with me, I want to have a conversation, and I suspect most people in organisations are the same. Language like ’employee engagement’ has a distancing effect, and has little to do with rapport and relationship building. It suggests there is a gap, a ‘them & us-ness’ that might be arising, and in the very choice of words perpetuates the problem.

    • Neil · April 25, 2013

      Yes. Yes. Yes.

  4. 3ease · April 15, 2013

    I avoid using the term ‘engagement’ because it sounds theoretical, pink, fluffy and expensive. Most of the organisations I work with wouldn’t know what I was talking about either. And as it means different things to different people/organisations I think it’s more helpful to focus on objectives and the practicalities of making it/them happen – ‘doing whats right for my people’.

    When we talk about engagement we’re not really talking about anything new; it’s a combination of a lot of stuff, some of which has been around for a long time, with a few tweaks here and there. I like to think this is a re-brand and recent discussions suggest we may need another one! In the meantime the debate is doing a good job of spreading the word and the profile of whatever we choose to call it.

    PS It is handy to give ‘it’ a label so we consultants, academics etc. can at least agree what subject we are all talking about.

    • Neil · April 25, 2013

      “Doing what’s right by my people”. Absolutely.

  5. mrairmiles · April 15, 2013

    It appears the “E” word (let’s call it virus) is becoming “endemic” and leaving a bitter after taste. It has even crossed the channel over to the Continental Europe!

    I was talking to 3 friends in The Netherlands this weekend (all of whom work for sizeable global organisations) and every single one of them asked me (along these lines): “you’re in HR, so what do you think of all these engagement surveys we’re being asked to do…” The scariest thing was they weren’t even together in the same group, hence my use of the term “endemic”. And I thought I was meeting them for beers and a catch up!

    It appears everyone is talking about it over here too, or going through Employee Engagement Survey Year – was it not supposed to be Year of the Snake? Just like a snake bite, it is leaving a painful after taste. Neither of them believed in it, felt it thrust upon them and don’t believe the results will make any difference whatsoever (one even went as far as saying they’re just about to start implementing actions from their last survey 2 years ago, and are about to engage on yet another!).One of the comments was along the lines of “what’s the point of asking me if I feel engaged if you only ask me about it every 2 years?”.

    The message I was getting was that the “E” virus is alive and well and somehow having the opposite effect of its intention: engagement leading to disengaged and even more cynical workforce. Is engagement not just another word for motivation? And is motivation not supposed to be unique to each individual? The debate will go on!

    Eventually I “disengaged”, leaned back and dozed off in the warm afternoon sunshine… I hope next time they engage me with beers and a good old catch up, and then, I might stay awake!

    • Neil · April 25, 2013

      Did someone mention beer?

  6. Jon Ingham (@joningham) · April 15, 2013

    Engagement ain’t perfect, but we still need to do a lot more of it (doing right for people). Let’s not be too fussed about what we call it, but do what we can to encourage it.

    BTW, I don’t think you’re discrediting it by challenging it – I blogged about this last week at Strategic HCM (ahem!): engagement has to tolerate, accept and even encourage challenge. Challenge is engaged behaviour. The more discussion there is around this thing / approach / what we need to do to manage people well the better. And if we land on something that works better than engagement, and changes what most businesses do, I don’t think anyone is going to be upset.

    • Neil · April 25, 2013

      Great comment Jon, thanks.

  7. Doug Shaw · April 16, 2013

    Various dictionary definitions of engagement centre around two things. 1) a proposal of marriage and 2) the onset of war. Depending on how I’m feeling I can relate to both of these, most of the time.

    Part of the problem with engagement in a work sense is it seems to stand for a mirage, or a smokescreen behind which much guff can be peddled to unsuspecting customers and employees, for lest we forget there are loads of employees who have employee engagement as their job description as well as consultants. Whatever – the word conjures up such a nebulous definition nowadays that it is greeted with boredom/suspicion/hate/silence/insert your word of choice here.

    I think Andy is right in so far as what most employees want is better communication, and that is to a greater extent everyone’s job, including those who like to moan about it. I guess I’m biased because most of my work currently centres around helping people to have better conversations, I know – it sounds crazy, but I think a lot of people have forgotten the critical importance of dialogue, of conversations. To that extent and to the point he makes about distancing, I agree with Steve too.

    Rachel talks about a buzzword and I think there is a risk that some good work gets lost and/or tarnished by the dislike of an increasingly dislikeable term. Here’s a good, related post on buzzwords from the Social Fish blog:

    I love the way Mr Airmiles rails against the survey. And yet – it is a shame. For sure, most of these surveys are largely pointless, and yet the opportunity to regularly ask a few interesting questions of people, stuff like ‘what are we doing well?’ ‘what could we do better?’ etc are, I think, potentially hugely valuable. Trouble is you can’t really ‘sell’ a simple ‘product’ like those two questions eh?

    Lastly – I think it is interesting that Jon has recently blogged on the need to tolerate, accept and encourage challenge. A couple of weeks ago a consultant was tweeting at a conference and I retweeted him and said the opinion was narrow minded. The dialogue continued briefly before they tweeted saying I was being #naff and #petty then immediately proceeded to block me in order to prevent further dialogue. How’s that for tolerating, accepting and even encouraging challenge? They could take a leaf out of Jon’s book. Whatever – I doubt it will be resulting in a proposal of marriage any time soon 🙂

    • Neil · April 25, 2013

      Will you marry me?

      • Doug Shaw · April 25, 2013

        Awwww shucks *blush*. This is all moving so fast, it was only a few short weeks ago that you said you don’t make out on a first date.

  8. Woodreed (@TunWellsWoodies) · April 16, 2013

    Nice, provocative piece Neil. Of course do right by your people, value them and treat them like grown ups. We all need labels and terminology to understand what we’re talking about I guess. But you know even when you use the label people don’t always get it – a few years ago we ran a masterclass with the EE words in the title – and afterwards we were told by delegates that they’d thought they were coming to something about engaging employees in the sense of ‘taking them on’ or employing them. So nothing’s ever perfect. However my particular bugbear isn’t with the use of the term (as a quick look at the thought pieces on Woodreed’s website will bear out) but more with the way it’s used. EE campaigns, EE initiatives, EE surveys (with no resulting action or sharing of results) – I’ve ticked the EE box, that’s done, now what next. EE isn’t about one off tactical hits – it’s about an enduring and long term approach to doing right by your people, valuing them and treating them like grown ups. It’s the outcome you get when you do all of that. Jo Moffatt, Woodreed

    • Neil · April 25, 2013

      Provocative? Moi? 🙂

  9. Smokey · April 16, 2013

    Hey Neil, EE has still got you blogging, rather than spending time having adult conversations with your people. There must be something in the concept that’s got you? Otherwise surely apathy towards it and a focus on what matters to you would be more valuable, wouldn’t it?! I happen to enjoy an engaging conversation, one where I’m challenged, listened to and where ideas spring forth with vigour! For me the term Employee Engagement is about this sort of valuable person to person debate happening across an organisation. Don’t let the snake oil pedlars drag you down! You know it really means to be listened to. You and everyone else has woken up in the middle of the night thinking “if only they’d LISTEN to me”!

    • Neil · April 25, 2013

      I wrote it at night… employees generally don’t like to hear from me then….they’re not that engaged…..

  10. ianpbuckingham · April 17, 2013

    Of course people wake up feeling the need to be engaged, regardless of whether they use the term or not. It’s what attracts them to the brands they buy, the choices they make etc. It also influences who they work for and whether they stay (provided they have a choice that is).

    As such, it was actually a very well worn concept, long before the hype, and especially useful when viewed as part of an OD strategy.

    As the Woodies point out, there’s nothing wrong with trying to understand the art or science or even psychology that influences engagement especially as part of a change programme because it can POTENTIALLY help improve the lot of customers and employees alike.

    The problem is, the rise in popularity of the term has coincided with a rapid growth in online media (lots of chatter), economic downturn (lots of unhappiness) as well as an explosion in micro consultancies (lots of suppliers) to the extent that virtually every training company; events company; design company and comms consultant now calls itself an engagement agency. As a result the word has rapidly lost its impact , is fast becoming a cliche and it’s frequently pitched as an end in itself, losing sight of what engagement should truly be about.

    Good on you for climbing off the fence, however, and offering some challenge.

    It’s a lot more than can be said for the HR folk frozen in the headlights or the army of alleged zealots who perpetuate the PR, attend the EFS gatherings and clog up the pipelines and give a well intentioned “dog” a bad name without delivering much in the way of results!

    • Neil · April 25, 2013

      Was I ever on the fence? 🙂

  11. fiharland · April 17, 2013

    I think the problem with Buzz words is that they all mean different things to different people and organisations.
    I tend to want to hear from candidates that they are self motivated enough to want to turn up to work and we go ‘Be Present’ in their daily activities participation etc etc .. we all have non engaged days and that’s fine – go for a walk , grab a coffee – come back and re focus .. but non of this will happen if the work environment just doesn’t ‘light the fire in the belly’ enough daily, weekly, monthly, yearly.

    • Neil · April 25, 2013

      Agree. I’ve written something since on finding a company that we connect with. Maybe that’s more the thing?

  12. Henry · April 18, 2013

    OK then, but what says present, up with the times, of the moment, worth taking seriously, attention grabbing.
    Moaning about what’s passe is all very well.
    Take your own advice, son.
    We need to stop focussing on vacuous self-created concepts that are completely alien to the vast majority of human beings. We need to start talking about the things that matter to people. Real people.
    Add some value by saying more……………………

    • Neil · April 25, 2013

      Treating people well, just because. That’s the new black.

  13. dougshaw · April 18, 2013

    In other news….I’ve discovered why Neil feels so disengaged from engagement. He lives in the wrong city!

    Must be a slooooow news day over at Forbes.

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  15. Gareth Jones · April 22, 2013

    One of your best posts fella, shame i missed it first time round. I am in violent agreement which in itself is a small miracle 😉

    • Neil · April 25, 2013

      Hell has frozen over……

  16. David Bowles, Ph.D. · April 25, 2013

    Neil lets look at a couple of things you said:

    “absolutely NEVER in my life have I woken up and thought….”I wish I was more engaged””

    No perhaps not, but I can tell you that millions and millions of people wake up and say “I wish I was excited to go to work, I wish I liked this job more, I wish I could get along with my boss, I wish I just felt happier at work…..” I know this because each and every time over the last 30 years (the time that I have been in this field) I meet people and tell them what I do, they say this to me and almost beg me to come to their workplace to help. They are talking about the emotional state they experience at work, which we used to call morale and other things and now some…not all….call “engagement”.

    “Engagement is the sort of term a consultant would create. And then claim it was measurable and sell it at massively inflated amounts to a profession that was insecure and desperate to find some data to prove that they were both relevant and commercial.”

    Neil you make the CEOs, HRDs and many others I have met and worked with sound uninformed, stupid, passive, inhuman and more….and all the consultants in the field conniving swindlers. You, of course, sit above us on your pedestal. Meanwhile the data which link, in powerful ways, morale, engagement and key performance outcomes such as customer satisfaction, profitability and productivity has been out there for some time…no one has to be desperate to prove anything, its in plain sight.

    “Engagement is a term that we create to apologise for using people to generate profit.”

    Oh and you work for a non-profit? I didn’t think so…so do how do you “apologise for generating profit” at your company since you cannot bring yourself to use the word “engagement”?

    What is a bit sad is that nearly all the people you bad-mouth in this piece are in fact working towards the same goals you say you are…..and often succeeding. I know I am, and have been for decades. The only difference is that you are doing it without the word “engagement”……so why make such a huge deal out of it all?

    co-author with Cary Cooper: The High Engagement Work Culture: Balancing ME and WE (Macmillan, 2012)

    • Neil · April 25, 2013

      Thanks for taking the time to comment David. I guess we just see the same subject through different lenses. Me, because I think treating people properly is simply the right thing to do, you because “whether you are interested in productivity, profitability, customer satisfaction, worker health or innovation…all are affected by, and our data show, driven by, high morale and engagement”.

      That’s taken from your website.


  17. David Bowles, Ph.D. · April 25, 2013

    Neil, I never once thought of telling clients to treat people well, what a breakthrough!

    Well OK I’ve been doing that for as long as I have been in business; so we aren’t just “seeing the subject through different lenses” as you say, we have actually been doing the same thing, and for the same reasons.

    But here’s the problem: saying this does not convince everyone to act better in this area. Lets take the UK: it has woefully low levels of morale, engagement, wellbeing at work, whatever you call it. The lowest in Europe, according to multiple sources, and a level which was in place well before the financial crash and its after-effects. Since management is at the heart of this, with almost 90% of variance in morale/engagement/wellbeing based on how people feel about their immediate manager, it must mean that managers aren’t “treating people well” in the UK. Why not? Its a failure of work culture, but that has many variables; one of them is that many managers (from CEO on down) are only motivated to act in this area if they are convinced that doing something will help them achieve their organizational mission…..just because someone says “its the right thing to do” is not enough for them.

    This is why some of us have focused so much on the performance outcomes of work cultures which do treat people well: they are so compelling that even the hard driving MBA and similar types who run many organisations and create the cultures there through their values and behaviour, take notice and start to come around. Its why you see these outcomes listed on my website, and for which I make no apology.

    Perhaps you have insights into this issue? Trust me, I give it all a lot of thought. In the meantime, please don’t make the mistake of thinking that heartfelt, human being-oriented motives are absent in whole sections of the consulting profession working in this field!

    thanks, David

    • Neil · April 26, 2013

      Maybe it’s me, you’ve been clear about how much experience and insight you have, but if a manager has to be persuaded to “treat people well” through demonstrable “performance outcomes”, then I’m not sure that they’ll ever authentically treat people well.

      They won’t want the journey, just the destination.

      • David Bowles, Ph.D. · April 26, 2013

        Neil, as you sit there in the UK, with its very low levels of worker morale and engagement, you tell me that only the authentic, pure “because its the right thing to do” approach is acceptable to improve this situation.

        I’m envisioning a guy in the Sahara, dying of thirst, and I bring him water….he pushes it away and says “but I asked for Evian!”

        In an ideal world you are right. We don’t live in an ideal world. I’ll continue to try and persuade people to treat their people well with reasoning and data about performance, if that’s what it takes.


  18. Jon · April 26, 2013

    I’d hate this to turn into one of those discussions about what else can we call it. I agree with your correspondents who see the ‘e’ word as a convenient wrapper that those ‘engaged’ in the whole “doing what’s right by my people” agenda know what they are talking about.

    I do lots of writing at work that fits into this category and avoid using the ‘e’ word like the plague as I know it’s meaningless to most and ‘red rag to a bull’ to many. It’s a bit like change. People don’t resist change they resist being changed. People don’t resist being treated as human beings (as opposed to human resources), but they will resist being told all about it.

    We have a “Senior People Engagement Manager” who I begged not to use a job title that was unwittingly conferred upon him. At least he dropped it from his email signature.

    I use the term frequently on my blog as my target audience largely understand what I’m banging on about. You have no idea how relieved I was when I read this wonderful piece without seeing any disparaging reference to my recent blog post on the semantic and actual similarities between the language of employee engagement and the language of love 😉

    • Neil · April 26, 2013

      Thanks for the comment Jon and I like your post. I’d argue that in the same way we wouldn’t systemise love and marriage, we shouldn’t our work relationships. Can you imagine constructing a measure of love and surveying it every year?

      • Jon · April 26, 2013

        Well said Neil – brings us nicely back to communication I do believe. The only measure of love in a relationship you need is regular healthy two-way communication. When that fails it is likely that the relationship is headed that way too, for whatever reason…

        One of my favourite sayings around the over reliance on measurement by those charged with (and charging for) improving employee engagement is the one about the farmer and the pig. If you want to fatten up your pig for market, you don’t need to keep weighing it, you just need to keep feeding it.

  19. Matt Alder · April 26, 2013

    Can’t say this is a topic I’ve ever read much about, not because I don’t find it interesting but because the impenetrable meaningless jargon puts me off.

    I have however worked as an employee for several large companies and perhaps there is a case study in here. One of these companies is incredibly successful, innovative, has high levels of staff retention and was a pleasure to work for. Another one of these companies was a terrible place to work and eventually went bust. Can you guess which one of these spent a lot of time and money on surveys and employee engagement initiatives and which one just got on with business?!

    I’m sure much wonderful work happens in this area but it seems to me that lot of the time it is just a case of poor management teams trying to scientifically reconstruct what great management teams just do naturally….

    • Neil · April 26, 2013

      Matt – I couldn’t agree with you more.

    • David Bowles, Ph.D. · April 26, 2013

      Matt its great to work for a company like the one you describe. Having said that, I am reminded of Google, which surveys its people like crazy (every month with a “pulse” type survey and every year with a big one), and has an army of specialists on board to analyse the data and help with follow through. They are obsessed with their culture and the engagement of their people. Google is regularly at number 1 in the US list of “Best Places to Work”….

      So I think the conclusion here is that there is more than one path to organisational heaven…..


      • Matt Alder · April 27, 2013

        I don’t doubt it, I was just sharing my own personal experience. Google is an interesting example, they are a company in the business of making sense of information and data so it is hardly surprising that they measure and analyse everything themselves. I would imagine it is much more culturally authentic for them to get value from that approach than other less data literate organisations

  20. David · May 3, 2013

    Who cares what it’s called, what it used to be called or what it’s going to be called next week. I don’t wake up thinking ‘I wish I was more engaged’ but I do know when I am totally absorbed in what I am doing – enjoying a challenge, using my personal strengths, doing my utmost to deliver an exceptional service to my customers, feeling appreciated for my efforts, sharing the endeavors of the people I am working with as they strive for excellence.

    I am all for anything that helps raise awareness of the benefits of treating employees, workers, human capital, personnel, colleagues, crew, teammates, or whatever they are called this week brilliantly well to help them give of their best in a rewarding and respectful work environment.

    Internal communication is a vital element of ‘connecting’ people with an organisation but never has there been an industry that has generated so much jibber jabber to let the world know exactly how important it and they are.

    The sad thing is that so much effort has to go into getting business leaders to do the things that should be everyday common practice in a civilised society. Remember the phrase give and take – it’s now called ‘discretionary effort’ I think. It’s when everyone is expected to pull out all the stops for a particularly challenging project in exchange for nothing.

    Neil, if the outcome of ‘aiming for engaged employees’ is the same as ‘doing what’s right for my people and treating them like valued grown ups’ I’m cool with that, or uncool as the case may be. Let’s do it because it’s the right thing to do and ‘connect’ – do I feel an employee connection industry on the rise -in whichever way works for us.

    C’mon everybody – go connect, get those folk on board, generate some commitment & team spirit, go sing from the same hymn sheet, walk the talk, walk the walk – go ENGAGE!

    It’s just a word, only a word, a bit like welcome tho’ not quite so welcoming.

    If you want to save some time go scrap those meaningless, overblown appraisals and ditch the millions of HR performance frameworks, templates and all the daft names they use. Just have a conversation.

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  22. danaitch · May 8, 2013

    I’m not sure your average corporate citizen really cares what it’s called or how it’s defined or measured – they just know that if they’re asked (or in some cases told) to be more engaged, they’re probably not going to be. Is that rebellion or just human nature? Either way, it’s not good.

    HR should help create the environment for autonomy, mastery and purpose (thank you Daniel Pink) to thrive. Every company’s magic sauce is different, it’s just that some allow their employees to create the recipe and mix it themselves, and some provide a cookbook.

    Whatever the approach, tastes change, and it’s those companies that adapt to or even create that change that are likely to have better products, higher customer satisfaction, sustained performance, and, dare I say it, more engaged employees….whatever they are!

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