The Age of Engagement

In Corey Jamison's thirty years of working with leaders and their organizations, she has witnessed the evolution of thinking about how to get the most out of a workforce. In the 80s, the conversation moved from affirmative action to diversity, in the 90's we added inclusion. Most recently we've landed on employee engagement as the frame for driving organizational success. But does ‘engagement’ work or is it one more way to avoid the necessary challenges of working across our differences in service of innovation and higher level outcomes?

Over the next several weeks, we will be publishing a series of blog posts exploring how to move from 'The Age of Engagement' to 'Inclusive Leadership’.

The Age of Engagement

It has become an annual ritual for an organization to send out an employee survey that probes into people’s commitment to their work and their connection to the mission of the organization. It inquires about how corporate values appear in the workplace, and the degree to which people trust the company’s leadership’s. The goal of the survey is typically communicated without guile: ‘to help attract and retain talent, to engage people more deeply in their work, to increase overall productivity, and to improve the culture.’

Deadlines for the completing the survey are set, then extended. Results are tabulated to reveal patterns and correlations. Focus groups spring up, new initiatives are launched, eyes are rolled, and little changes from year to year.

“It has become an annual ritual for an organization to send out an employee survey.”

There is no shortage of academic research connecting higher engagement with increased productivity, quality of work, health of workers, and the overall success of an organization. This has given rise to a marketplace for employee engagement surveys and tools that has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry. Unfortunately, when organizations invest in engagement surveys, they do so more often as a ‘check the box,’ rather than as a means to solving the underlying problems of people feeling excluded, disengaged, or as if they do not ‘belong’ in an organization about which they care deeply and commit their energy, and hard work.

According to a January 2016 Gallup poll, only 13% of people worldwide are engaged (“involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and their workplace”). In the U.S., this number rises to 32%, which is still less than one in three. And while there have been ebbs and flows in engagement scores over the last 15 years, in the U.S. scores have barely budged. As the engagement survey industry grows, it still isn’t offering answers for how to improve the scores- or more importantly, the core issues at hand.

“There is no shortage of academic research connecting higher engagement with the increased productivity, quality of work, health of workers, and overall success of an organization.”

Why haven’t we made progress? Maybe the surveys aren’t asking the right questions. Maybe we’re too busy measuring responses instead of listening to people’s answers. Maybe answering complex and personal questions about a person’s sense of belonging, the meaningfulness of their work, and their feelings of connection and inspiration by rating things on a scale of 1-5 undermines the very questions being asked.

At its deepest level, engagement is a powerful ingredient for achieving transformative results.  Yet we treat it like a transactional exercise whose goal is raising survey scores instead of understanding the unique equation that moves people and systems forward toward shared accountability, improvement, and strong partnerships.  

Over the next several weeks, we will be sharing a series of blog posts exploring how to move from ‘The Age of Engagement’ to ‘Inclusive, Transformational Leadership’. Join our mailing list for series updates.