Engagement is a bit like exercise. You know you should do it, you know it’s good for you but you never seem to get round to doing it properly. It’s often forgotten among all the other things you have to do and then, when you remember and feel guilty, you indulge in some token gesture that makes you feel good but hardly makes a significant difference
Having personally been involved in producing a report for the Government back in 1999 on improving leadership in British business, I understand the challenges David MacLeod and Nita Clarke faced in producing their report, Engaging For Success.
In the case of the leadership report, despite good recommendations and a strong business case, after it was presented nothing significant happened. British business is still having the same leadership failures and the quality or level of leadership development in organisations has not increased significantly since then either.
Engaging your workforce:
Defining employee engagement: What does it mean to the experts?
Fostering a culture of belonging and engagement in a hybrid environment
Engagement surveys failing to provide the full picture
Engaging for Success sets out a compelling business case and recommendations that will make a real difference if implemented. Much of the content shouldn’t be new to HR professionals, but the collection of it all into one place and the analysis and conclusions now provide a clear business case that is beyond dispute. Improving engagement improves organisational performance – fact.
This is great ammunition for HR now to take a proactive approach to making engagement happen.
The UK potentially loses a staggering £60 billion a year due to lack of engagement, plus the negative impact on our global competitiveness. We also need effective engagement to get through the downturn as quickly as we can. So engagement really matters to us as individuals, HR professionals and citizens.
But within HR there are still disputes about how engagement is defined, whether it’s new or just a continuation of good practice and the effectiveness of measurement. This looks like a déjà vu of business partnering where vital implementation was delayed while discussion rambled on. We might not know exactly how to define engagement but we all know what has to be done to get us engaged personally. That’s the critical part.
The additional problem is that, according to MacLeod, many in HR interpret running employee engagement surveys annually as delivering engagement. That’s rather like saying that applying to do the London Marathon is the same as doing it. Engagement is about transforming performance, not running an annual survey.
One key diagnosis from the report is that engagement isn’t happening because of poor leadership. That’s an interesting view as it links back to the failure of the 1999 Leadership Report to be turned into real action. For the next stage of MacLeod and Clarke’s strategy, enabling and supporting implementation, they intend to work with senior business leaders to provide a clear, simple and organisationally-friendly road map for organisations to follow.
This is due out in March 2010. That’s where the real challenges come. The report’s key recommendations are on increasing support, aligning resources and building national awareness to drive a step change in the way engagement is viewed and implemented by not just HR but everyone in organisations – top management, line management and staff. This is focused around the four key enablers of engagement:
Leadership – to align effort to organisational need
Engaging managers – to facilitate and empower staff
Voice – to enable staff to express their views
Integrity – to use values to build trust at all levels
This places HR in a make-or-break position. If HR doesn’t present a clear business case to CEOs and boards with credible implementation plans that help improve the bottom line, someone else will. Yes, there are examples of excellent engagement and success but these are sadly the exception not the norm.
We must also look abroad at what our competitors are doing as we compete as part of the global business community. Far too few UK organisations have the top performing organisational benchmarks in fields such as leadership. Our often UK-centric attitudes present real risks to our competitiveness.
We also need to focus engagement on specific objectives. Yes, it’s great to engage people in the organisation in general terms, but then it’s down to management to align that effort with the things that really matter to improve organisational performance. It can’t just be about keeping staff happy.
Engagement isn’t complex; we don’t need to debate definitions; it just goes back to that basic question of leadership – the ability of the line manager to inspire, motivate, develop and focus the effort of their people on what really makes a difference. That’s not rocket science, that’s common sense.
But now and again it’s good to have people like MacLeod and Clarke bring us back to common sense and help us make it happen. This is an opportunity we in HR must not miss.