I’m Getting Really Tired of “Engagement”

by Carol Anderson, Featured Contributor

RECENTLY I came across a sponsored article in Fast Company, titled “Happiness Secrets from the Staff of Delivering Happiness at Work.”  Apparently Zappo’s leadership team has launched a new consulting business on how to achieve Zappos’ fun culture….using fun culture as a measure of engagement.  Who knew! One picture in the article shows three employees with rubber noses.  That’d go over well with customers interested in effective growth of their investment portfolio….

Several blog sites that I frequent post myriad articles on employee engagement – from how important it is, to how much additional revenue is generated by engaged employees, to why it is different than satisfaction.  And then, there was the “happiness” articengagementle.

Inc. carried a post, “The Dark Side of Employee Engagement” in which the authors cite Leadership IQ’s recent study showing that those who were most “engaged” might not be the best performers.  They caution the reader to clearly understand the definition of engagement, when embarking on a study to determine engagement levels.

I have come to the conclusion that “engagement” has become one of those buzzwords that has lost its meaning because it is so overused. And I fear that focusing on “engagement” has caused us to lose sight of what is really important – skilled leaders who can move teams forward.

I watched an organization spend six figures annually on engagement surveys, while totally missing the opportunity to develop new leaders, identify future leaders, and help those leaders lead effectively.  Year after year, the organization patted itself on the back for slight movement in engagement scores.  Yay – we’re moving from mediocre to a little bit less mediocre!

How in heaven’s name can an organization measure or improve engagement without investing in leaders who have the skill to engage?

Conceptually, engagement is complex.  Is the employee productive?  Is the employee achieving the critical business goals?  Is the employee going to look elsewhere for employment, thereby leaving a vacancy that costs money?  It isn’t simply performance and it isn’t simply being committed to the organization.  The complexity comes in recognizing that those two elements are different for every employee.

So who is in the best position to lead employees to high performance and commitment?  My thought – their leader.

So how does the organization know if leaders are effective in developing a committed and productive workforce?

Ah, so that’s the big question that leads to engagement surveys.  Senior leadership needs empirical data to know if the subordinate leaders are effective.  That’s a pretty costly venture to acquire empirical data when the data might be right there staring them in the face.

“Leaders of leaders” – those individuals to whom leaders report – have a challenge that is unique to their role.  Like all leaders, they need to effectively develop their talent.  But the talent they need to be developing is skill and competence in leading others.

I contend that “leaders of leaders” have tools available to them that are low cost and high payoff.  These tools provide insight into subordinate manager leadership skills, connect them to the employees and may, in fact, uncover innovation and process improvement.  Give some of these a try – it sounds a bit simplistic but it works.

  • Read the performance reviews that subordinate managers write on their employees.  Make the performance review system work for you by using it to observe managers’ skills in talent development.

          → Do they differentiate in performance?

          → Do they provide helpful feedback?

          → Do the employees make comments?  What happens to those comments?

          → What are the follow up plans when employees are not performing?

          → How are they developing their top talent?

  • Walk through work areas frequently and talk to the employees.  Will this cause anxiety for their leader?  Perhaps, but that makes it even more important and once they see you are doing it to learn and help, their trust in you builds.
  • Ask to sit in on staff meetings.  What a wealth of information that will provide….everything from how effectively the leader leads a meeting, to what they talk about, and whether or not they leave with an actionable plan.  It also gives an opportunity for a Q&A.
  • Ask about the interview and hire process when a subordinate is filling a vacancy.  Even more fundamental, ask “how do you know that you need this position?”  If they cannot tell you that, they have not done their due diligence.
  • Ask about the on-boarding plan for a new hire.  How will they help the new hire assimilate quickly and efficiently.  Talk with the new hire after a couple months and find out about his/her experience.
  • Host “coffee with the leader” for small groups of employees and let them plan ask questions.  Asking questions of them gives you a sense of how well they know the business, the strategy and the goals.  A key responsibility of leaders is to communicate and align the messaging throughout the organization.

As I have said before, this is not the time for a heavy hand.  If you don’t like what you see or hear, this is your opportunity to model mentoring and coaching.   Share what you learned with the subordinate leader and work together to figure out how you feel about what you learned, then make a plan and follow through.  This is dialogue, and it works wonders.

Don’t have time to do this?  Oops, wrong answer.  This IS leadership.

Engagement?  It’s all about effective leadership.  Help leaders learn to dialogue.

And lest I offend my colleagues who offer surveys, I don’t mean to say I don’t think they are necessary, particularly when the organization becomes very large.  The empirical data from a good survey provides valuable insight into an important part of the business.  But regular and honest dialogue throughout all levels of the organization is, in my mind, the best way to customize the concept of engagement to all of the different employees.


Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

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  1. Hello Carol, thanks for the article.

    Employers have tried all sorts of things to create successful employees who do need to be managed. Teaching/preaching leadership has been replaced by employee engagement. That won’t work either until managers learn how to hire and manage employees who will become engaged if managed well, treated fairly, and paid accordingly.

    Too much effort is spent trying to get employees to be engaged.
    Employee engagement is what employers get in return for doing all things well.
    Doing all things well is very hard work for most of us.

    Empowering a workforce is easy to do; have all…
    – executives
    – managers
    – supervisors
    do their jobs well all of the time.

    The hard part is
    – getting the executives to do their jobs well,
    – the next hardest part is getting managers to do their jobs well,
    – followed by supervisors doing their jobs well.
    Employees will be doing their jobs well if everyone above them is doing their jobs well.

    Look out, employee engagement is about to take hold.

    Some employers want to skip the executives, managers and supervisor parts and go right to the employees, but that is not how employees get engaged.