Monday, February 08, 2010

What's in a name?...Or, do the terms we use limit us more than they should

Much of my life at the moment is involved in aspects of employee engagement as I try and get myself around some of the knotty problems organisations are involved in as the economy all too slowly emerges from recession.

The problems are pretty-much common to all: keeping the best performers; continuing to drive productivity; growing market share; attracting the right people.....and for those already there, doing more with less.

For my clients at least, a return to profitable business doesn't mean a return to the business costs of pre-2008. Their internal teams are leaner, budgets are meaner but the expectation of success is as high as ever.

The great thing is that many more organisations than before have realised that the best way to deliver on high productivity demands is by having an engaged organisation. The Macleod report defines this as being underpinned by four enablers:

  • Leadership
  • Engaging Managers
  • Voice and
  • Integrity.

I agree that they're all absolutely vital yet feel they're very difficult to achieve if we continue to use the term 'employee engagement'. I can see why it's used - not least the fact that it's been the common currency term among communicators and HR people for a number of years.

But thereby lies the problem. It's a term used almost as a throw-away by business leaders and given to HR or Comms (or often a combination of both) as a transactional task to deliver. The assumption is that with the right 'corporate hygiene' and internal comms we will draw everyone into the business to deliver far more than the 'competency' people are recruited for.

But MacLeod - and anyone with any sense would see that engagement has to begin at the top. While boards may be beholden to shareholders and analysts, only they can set the tone for the organisation: only they can create the environment and role model the behaviours that set the tone for the whole organisation. They must be engaged more than anyone else in the organisation. Employee engagement implies a top-down, traditional structure and some kind of paternalistic benevolence from the top.

But engaged organisations aren't like that. My definition of engagement is simple: it's creating the right culture to keep your best people longest. That means having the right behaviours, beliefs and ways of working to ensure that everyone knows what their role is within the organisation and are confident to give of their best in delivering on expectations. But it goes further: it's about creating an environment where everyone works collectively to drive the business forward - that means having leaders at all levels who listen, lean and apply great thinking irrespective of the thinker's job title.

Talking to David MacLeod last week, we agreed that colleague engagement is probably a better term. However, that's still a little limiting to me as to my mind it still implies a group of people who work directly within the organisation. But businesses, government departments, charities and any other functional community tends to have tentacles winding out in all sorts of directions that remain within that community.What about the contractors? What about the outsourced functions working in your building? What about those suppliers you work with every day, without whom your job could not be done? Aren't these all a part of the community that needs to be engaged to drive the organisation forward? Shouldn't we be investing in the tools to bring these quasi-internal stakeholders on board too? Surely it's by embracing this wider community that we'll achieve real engagement.

So what to call it? A large part of me wants just 'engagement' - but possibly that's too vague a term. Business engagement's a possible: but doesn't that exclude the public and third sectors?

At the moment, the best I can come up with is organisational engagement - still a mouthful but a more encompassing, less one-way and less top-down term. But does it have legs?

1 comment:

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