Employee engagement: why is the gauge not rising?

About the author

Kevin is a co-founder of PR Academy and is the author of Exploring Internal Communication published by Routledge. Kevin leads the CIPR Internal Communication Diploma course. PhD, MBA, BA Hons, PGCE, FCIPR, CMgr, MCMI.

The level of engagement in the UK, at 27% in one major study, is well below the global average of 35% and this relatively low level has existed for more than a decade.

Organisations are spending millions of pounds on engagement surveys and action planning. The Engage for Success movement is doing a great job on providing information and spreading the word about the importance of engagement.  And CEOs have engagement high on their list of strategic priorities.

So why is the gauge not rising?

On one level, perhaps stagnating figures simply reflect how challenging it is for managers to create a culture that leads to employees feeling more engaged. There is certainly no easy, simple, fix. As David MacLeod pointed out at the recent CIPR Inside conference there are some examples of great practice out there. However, the general conclusion is that the overall state of engagement is in need of a boost.

I think it helps to have a more sophisticated way of understanding employee engagement and to differentiate between work engagement and organisational engagement.   Work engagement is about the way we are engaged by our work; the tasks involved, the challenges, the rewards, the opportunities for development, training provided, the relationship with your immediate manager, and the relationship with people in the immediate team. Organisational engagement is about broader organisational  reputation, values, purpose, progress, changes, perceived support for all people, and employee voice where comments, suggestions, and views are encouraged and treated seriously by all levels of management.

Looking at the approach taken by many providers of large scale engagement surveys, it seems that the questions used are primarily about work engagement. Work engagement is often seen as the more important factor. The resulting action plans end up firmly in the lap of the line manager (who is often at the end of many other action plans) as work engagement revolves around the relationship with the line manager. Now, that’s fine if it leads to more meaningful and regular conversations about work and line managers are supported in the process. However, it tends to let senior managers off the hook.

If, instead, the focus was equally on work and organisational engagement, we might see an equal focus on line manager and senior manager communication as actions.

There is evidence from my current PhD research at the University of Central Lancashire that when it comes to organisational engagement,  a combination of senior managers keeping employees informed and employee voice is strongly associated with what employees think and feel about the organisation. This is, in turn, strongly associated with positive behaviour to achieve organisational goals.

This is summarised as a new concept;  informed employee voice. The premise is that although employee voice on it’s own is a strong enabler of organisational engagement, it is much more  powerful when it is based on employees being well informed.

My recent CIPR Inside webinar explored this in more depth. If you are a CIPR member you can watch the recording here.

The presentation is below.