The Employee Engagement Racket – Debunked

I recently read an article by Liz Ryan entitled The Employee Engagement Racket (here if you wish to read it). The premise of her article is that engagement is simply the latest ‘fad’. She eruditely says that engagement surveys are a “crock and a racket”. She explains that she feels this is the case because, according to her, “people plug into their work at different levels and for different reasons.”

Ms Ryan is described as an expert on the new millennium workplace. That well be so, but her comments and conclusions lead me to conclude she has little idea about people, how they work, what motivates them or indeed how to get the best from them …

It is true that engagement is indeed an increasingly important aspect of 21 century business. It is also true that organisations are increasingly hijacking the language of engagement so they may portrait themselves as organisations with their finger on the pulse, in control and progressive.

The reality is that today, midway through 2014, the number of organisations truly embracing engagement is still far less than those continuing to use outmoded, outdated and frankly inefficient business models. Thankfully though the number embracing engagement is increasing steadily as the evidence for its success grows and is more widely reported.

Like anything new, once it’s recognised as having the potential to bring in work, many ‘consultants’ crawl out of the woodwork and peddle instant success; much of it based apparently on reading a book or an article and therefore consisting of smoke and mirrors.

Those of us who have advocated it for very much longer (in my case over 25 years) fully understand that it never was, and can never be, any form of ‘initiative’ or ‘project’ or ‘case study’. Engagement is serious. At its heart lies root and branch change of attitude and action within an organisation and that can only ever be achieved through genuine leadership and the consent and buy-in of the complete board of directors or whatever the organisation’s leadership team consists of.

That said, the day to day reality is that it’s actually easier to do, and achieve better results, than say putting in a new IT system, it’s just a little more scary as it’s a bit of an unknown quantity.

The very hardest thing required about engagement is the initial decision. I’ve always likened it to losing weight. Losing weight is actually very simple, it’s throwing the switch in your head to be serious about it that takes the real effort. Similarly with engagement.

To be successful with engagement you need a leader who is confident, a leader who is not afraid (of ‘losing’ control), a leader who is a good communicator, a leader who recognises that the strength of the organisation is not him/her, but the intelligence and commitment of the people employed.

Ms Ryan talked about people “plugging into work at different levels and for different reasons”. Yet again she is seeing it superficially. When you take the time and trouble to investigate, to research, to interview, to understand, you find that we (people who work) do it for very fundamental reasons. This was all identified and published by Abraham Maslow in 1954 (so 60 years ago) in his book Motivation & Personality. For the sake of brevity, our basic instinct is to ensure personal survival, the next level is to provide for our family and the next level after that is to enjoy ourselves. Keep that thought for a moment.

As human beings, all of us who have ‘normal’ minds, need to feel our existence is/has been of some value. We want to feel that we have made and continue to make some form of contribution. When we feel that we’re contributing we feel valued and feeling valued is a combination of feeling more secure, feeling happier and feeling increasing contentment; we enjoy life more. Did you notice the complete absence of the word money?

What Ms Ryan misses is that as human beings we all want these things. What she talks about is how individuals express those basic desires. Everything we do at a conscious level is driven by an (unconscious) emotional driver, but we all express it in different ways due to our knowledge or perception of how we might achieve the satisfaction of this hidden emotional driver. The reality is that few people actually understand what they want enough to be as concise as I’ve been here, but neuroscience has (over the last 5 years) turned upon its head the old notion that money is at the heart of happiness. Many experiments have now been carried out where people who openly express a desire for money, or insist their sole motivator is money, actually choose very different options when the chips are down. That also demonstrates that we don’t actually know ourselves as well as we think either …

So, after all of that, engagement (valuing your staff so they pro-actively seek opportunities to contribute) does work. Even better, it delivers the kind of sustainability and profitability that other businesses would give their eye teeth for. All it needs is a leader who understands that every member of staff is as important as the next – otherwise they shouldn’t be there – the courage to say, “Thank you”, and mean it, to staff, and a desire to properly listen to what every member of staff has to offer. Tick those three boxes and you’re on your way to delivering a sustainably healthy, wealthy and profitable business.

Give me a call (07803 136613) or email me ( if I can help or you need any advice. We are not all as Ms Ryan would have you believe! You cannot be in business successfully for this long without integrity and understanding what’s really important