What exactly is employee engagement?
We know it’s a topic trending in every corner of the L&D world. We know it has something to do with being “all-in” on work. Mostly, though, we know that no one knows quite what it is. Dig into the issue for a few minutes and you’re likely to see more definitions of engagement than you have employees to engage. Why is it so hard to agree on the core of the problem we’re all trying to solve?
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It could just be that “engagement” isn’t a conveniently identified concept. Personally, my favorite definition is “a deep, personal, and empowered investment in work,” but even that circumscribes the issue too narrowly. I think a more accurate idea of engagement can be drawn through a metaphor to physical well-being. Here’s why engagement to a business is like health to your body:
Health is impossible to define.
The health of your body isn’t identified by any single quality or characteristic. There’s no discrete set of factors that create a healthy body, despite what food commercials might have you believe. You know that certain practices lead to health, and you (hopefully) know the general feeling of health, but you also know that pigeonholing the concept of wellness into concrete boundaries doesn’t help you to actually be healthy.
Engagement, like health, doesn’t need a precise definition in order to be identifiable or attainable. As you try to engage your workforce, don’t get hung up on definitions. Use whatever metrics you want to measure it, but keep in mind that no one data point totally captures the essence of engagement.
You don’t achieve it, you maintain it.
A more useful way to think about health might be as the result that comes from your efforts to be healthy. That includes educating yourself on practices that promote health, followed by the all-important part about actually doing them. Health isn’t a thing you achieve. It’s a thing you strive for continually. And the second you stop maintaining health is the moment it starts to go away.
Engagement works the same way. A workforce that’s engaged today might not be that way tomorrow if its organization doesn’t prioritize engagement on an ongoing basis.
It represents internal strength.
Health determines your capacity today and in the future. It keeps you nimble and adaptable. It gives you a positive outlook. Most of all, it feels empowering. The reason to strive for engagement is the same reason to strive for health: it confers longevity and strength.
There are a lot of opinions on how to achieve it, but ultimately, learning is what informs your pursuit.
There’s no shortage of advice out there on how to improve your health. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think magazine models are pictures of health. Or that “20,000 doctors can’t be wrong!” about the benefits of smoking. Learning is the difference between believing what you’re told and knowing what you’re doing. You’re born with a body, but you’re not born knowing how to maintain it. You have to learn how.
It takes a similar degree of learning to engage your workforce. We know that on-the-job learning contributes to employee engagement, but your approach to delivering it needs to be informed. Without understanding the kind of learning that employees respond to, your attempts at engagement could end up backfiring. Like if you book some corny teamwork guru instead of aligning your culture through a better onboarding process. Or if you solicit employee feedback through a long, cumbersome questionnaire instead of understanding people through smarter, smaller data.
You wouldn’t use this guy’s belt machine thing to get fit. Your attempts at engagement, too, should avoid outdated approaches.
There is, of course, a lot that engagement and health don’t have in common. It’s possible for some unthinkably terrible office to suffer from “zero” engagement, for example. It is not possible for a living person to have literally no health. But the core similarity between the two is instructive. Engagement doesn’t need to be defined in order to be understood. It doesn’t have to be measured in order for you, and especially your employees, to know it’s there. Engagement, like health, is an internal harmony and fortitude that’s worth pursuing for its own sake. There’s no end point to reach—it’s in working towards engagement that it’s achieved.
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