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Maybe We Need a New Word for "Engagement"

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Mon Mar 02 2015

Maybe We Need a New Word for "Engagement"
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In recent years, the concept of employee engagement has emerged as a strong contender for official “Next Big Thing Du Jour” status. This makes perfect sense, given the ample and compelling research demonstrating a strong positive correlation between employee engagement levels and business performance, as measured along such critical dimensions as productivity, efficiency, market share, and employee retention. 

The word “engagement” commonly connotes some form of connection or interaction. Gears are said to engage in a car’s transmission. Opposing armies are said to engage on the battlefield. A leader holding a team meeting to kick off a process improvement project puts a check mark in the engagement column of her project plan, a plan which might also include such other line items as: “Engage Facilities Dept. re: Room Set-Up.” 

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Those are all reasonable and proper uses of the word. But here’s the problem: They’re all describing something very different from the engagement being referred to in the research. That kind of engagement means “The extent to which a person is moved to invest extra energy and effort in the tasks at hand.” It’s not that the energy/effort definition is better than the interaction/connection definition; it’s that they are very different from each other. 

Right about now you may be thinking: “Aren’t you just making a semantic point?” And you’d be right. I am making a semantic point. But—WARNING: SECOND SEMANTIC POINT DEAD AHEAD!—there’s nothing “just” about it. As Mark Twain famously observed, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” 

Consider the leader’s decision to include breakout sessions on the agenda for that kick-off meeting. Her thought process might have been: “I want to achieve higher levels of energy/effort engagement. One interaction/connection engagement technique to achieve those higher levels of energy/effort engagement is to bring everybody together for a kick-off meeting. Another interaction/connection technique to increase energy/effort engagement is to include breakouts. That’s what we’ll do.” 

And if that was her thought process, we’re good. But based on my experience, it’s considerably likelier to have been more along these lines: “This engagement stuff is supposed to be important. So, we gotta have a team meeting, and it’s gotta include breakouts.” 

Could such gotta-include-‘em breakout sessions yield more energy/effort engagement? Perhaps. But they could also result in the sessions’ participants thinking: “Didn’t we go through the same exercise six months ago? And weren’t our recommendations ignored? Besides which, what does any of this mean to me? I knew I should have clicked on DECLINE when I got the meeting invitation!” 

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Employees are smart enough to go through the motions during the breakout sessions, but all the while they’d be rolling their eyes and sneaking peaks at their smartphones. Ironically, the net result of all of this interaction/connection engagement could be participants who, energy/effort-wise, are more likely to have dis-engaged. 

There is a difference between “a series of activities in which people participate” and “a feeling-state in which people exist.” There’s also a difference between what happens inside a room and what happens inside the heads—and hearts—of the people inhabiting that room. The point is not that taking exclusively mechanical, utilitarian measures to attend to what are fundamentally matters of the spirit and soul won’t work. It’s that it can’t work—any more than even the most powerful antibiotic can cure a viral infection. 

In virtually all cases, the ability to achieve higher levels of energy/effort engagement will require the application of interaction/connection engagement techniques. The trap lies in assuming that by achieving interaction/connection engagement you have therefore achieved the kind of energy/effort engagement that will yield the business performance benefits cited in the research. It’s the “therefore-ness” that’s the problem. 

Were you able to keep straight all of those references in the last paragraph to interaction/connection engagement and energy/effort engagement—without, that is, at least a couple of re-readings? Maybe, to pre-empt the possibility of such confusion, we need to use a different word when what we’re talking about is the kind of engagement that’s referred to in the research. After all, we don’t want to be spending all of our energy and effort parsing the difference between the two. 

I don’t know what that new word should be. What I do know, though, is that a leader who understands why a new word might be necessary is a leader who is more likely to have a firmer grip on the concept and who will, therefore, be more successful in achieving higher levels of “real, no-foolin’, Next Big Thing Du Jour” employee engagement. 

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And as Mark Twain might have put it, that would be a very large matter indeed.

Editor's note: This post is adapted from Otherwise Engaged: How to Get a Firmer Grip on Employee Engagement and Other Key Intangibles\* \*If, That Is, It Were Possible to Grip Something That’s Intangible (Maven House Press).

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