“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
Adopting undeserved gravitas by quoting one of history’s great intellectuals? Textbook bloggery, that is. Fortunately, it’s also apposite to the point in question. Our old friend ‘engagement’.
I recently stumbled across this article on RI5. ‘Engagement’ has become the bon mot of choice for HR professionals – and, by some happy coincidence, it’s also become the focus of all kind of highfalutin research. The overwhelming conclusion seems to be that engagement is A Good Thing. Sounds right. Better than being disengaged, almost certainly.
Which is fortunate because, according to the aforementioned article based on a recent study, “job satisfaction has been overtaken in importance by employee engagement”. Say it ain’t so!
(At his point, I suppose I should define ‘job satisfaction’ and ‘employee engagement’. The authors haven’t but this is doubtless basic stuff. By inference, I’d say that job satisfaction means being happy with your specific role plus the goodies that go with it, while ‘employee engagement’ is being happy with your employer and the overall experience they provide. That seems to be the gist.)
But how do you separate the two? Are they seriously suggesting there’s no interaction between how much we enjoy our jobs and how much we enjoy the overall job experience? How can you possibly measure them as discrete variables? I think we both know the answer to that, dear reader.
The article goes further: “There’s also evidence that it’s possible to maintain levels of engagement irrespective of actual ‘satisfaction’”. Why, this is excellent news! Can’t afford to give your staff a decent pay rise? Don’t worry, just engage them. Sorting out a better personal development strategy too taxing? Nothing engagement can’t fix. All this time we’ve been getting too hung up how much people enjoy their actual jobs. Think big picture, people. Sheesh.
It’s not long before the mask slips. Apparently a key case study from a leading law firm “revealed the organisation’s intention to shift its focus internally away from employee satisfaction in favour of employee engagement”. A noble intent, surely. Perhaps not: “If nothing else, it leads to better scores in employee surveys!” <Titanic sigh>.
This last line reveals the big flaw in all this. Not the cynicism of the sentiment, but the danger that always presents itself when you try and abstract human emotions into mathematical absolutes – that the figures are the real world as opposed to a very limited approximation thereof.
You wouldn’t mistake a rough sketch on piece of paper for a living breathing person, would you? But that’s exactly what these studies ask us to do. Back to Einstein. People’s feelings definitely count. But, when it comes to counting them, they can be a right bugger.
That’s not to say applying scientific rigour to these questions is not valuable. It’s just that so many of these studies are neither scientifically rigorous nor provide any valuable insights. One way or another, they all arrive at the same core conclusion: people are motivated at work by more than just their day-to-day job and salary. Notice I didn’t ask you to sit down or check if you were of a nervous disposition.
Much like the siren simplicity of research data, the ubiquity of the term ‘engagement’ may be obscuring a more practical truth: that you don’t ‘engage’ people. You provide them with the best possible employee experience in every area. Whether that engages them or not is entirely their decision. Count on it.