Since employee engagement has become an industry in its own right, and is taking over a lot of air time, I want to ‘elevate the confusion to a higher level’. Not really! But I think we all in the Human Capital business should put our cards on the table. A bit risky, though. Some truths may make us uncomfortable. We have so many Emperors With No Clothes who may catch a cold!
Let me focus today on the six frameworks that are around, one way or another, competing with each other. These are the six models that stand out from my research and consulting practice.
1. ‘Air time’: This is a ‘voice model’. Employees are told, also listened to. A dialogue is supposed to be established. What ‘they’ say counts. Management listens to ‘them’. Surveys and rankings dominate this model. The measurement tools tend to take over the narrative. ‘Employee’s voice’ acquires a jargon of its own. ‘Giving voice’ seems to be the aim, more than what to do with that voice. It all looks like surveys and Town Halls.
2. ‘Happy Cows’. I did not invent the term! There is a book with this title. ‘Happy cows (employees) deliver better milk (productivity)’ This is a machine model. Provide good input, you’ll get a good output. Employee Happiness and satisfaction deliver better… results. The machine is oiled with good working conditions and rewards. Cows are happy, milk is good. The whole employee satisfaction and ‘happiness industry’ sits here. This is input/output model. Narrative such as ‘the extra mile’ and ‘discretional effort’ sit here.
3. ‘Cause’. Employees are engaged within the company on noble causes that the company either has or adopts. It’s often a ‘NGO inside’ model. People’s engagement provides meaning, sense of worth and a glue. And this is good for everybody. Bring green and sustainability stuff inside, engage the employees and, alas!, you’ll have ‘employee engagement’. Entire NGO businesses are sponsored by Big Consultancies and Big Companies as a way to ‘bring the cause inside’ and provide an ‘engagement glue’ for employees. It’s a lucrative business
4. ‘The Investors metaphor’. In this model, the employee is an investor of his/her own human capital. At year end, there is either good or bad investment! HR people and management are ‘Human Capital Investment Fund Managers’. This is an underestimated model. It gives power to the employee, as ‘investor’. This model had a timid attempt a few years ago and then it lost steam. A bit of a revolutionary gem in waiting. But the waiting is longer than one may have expected years ago. It tells us that ‘employee power’ is still low.
5. ‘Moral Drive’. Employee engagement is… because it’s morally good, regardless. It has to do with human dignity and the power of work as enhancement of the individual. Don’t look in the MBA manual, but in the Catholic Social Teaching documents, for example, for inspiration. Not many people will identify this as a model of any kind. After all, some people may say, organizations and businesses are ‘amoral’. Darwinian capitalism has a bit of a laugh with this model. Moral what?
6. ‘Activism’. Employees take charge in a progressive, self-managed way. They are active in a peer-to-peer environment. They are engaged with the company not just within the company. Doing is greater than talking or advocating. Activists do. There is an ‘act’ in the word. They figure out what to do and how. They do. Leadership gains control by losing control. This model states that ‘the ultimate goal of employee engagement’ is self-management.
First port of reflection: where are you on this? Which one(s) represent your organization? It’s bound to be a mixture, but, can you recognise the models?