By Gloria Lombardi

john-smythe-carouselIt might sound ironic that an established employee engagement guru such as John Smythe (pictured right) organises a debate around the validity of his own discipline. But that is what happened at the Groucho Club this week.

His opening was straight and to the point. “I am proposing the motion that employee engagement is just another fad for the sake of inquiry and learning.”

The idea came from a reflection that “in ten years since we had created Engage for Change, the employee engagement idea has gone from ‘what’s that – the door is over there’ to engagement mania with many characteristic of a bubble. We thought it might be timely to wade through the rhetoric and try to see what it’s like to be still standing in another ten years.”

Indeed, the lively event held under the auspices of the CIPD sparked some provocative questions and challenged the thinking.

The case for the motion

There are a number of reasons for which Smythe felt in favour of ‘the motion.’

First, “definitions are multiple and sometimes conflicting. Many are descriptions of outcomes rather than definitions of the state of being engaged.”

If that holds true, how can we measure a poorly defined construct? “The plethora of survey companies is in effect measuring multiple definition – employee engagement is currently whatever you fancy. Beside, much of what is measured is often not much more than re-packaged satisfaction.”

For Smythe it’s old wine in new bottles. “Academics say there is nothing much new. It is a patchwork of pre-existing ideas like commitment, motivation, inclusion, industrial democracy, empowerment and good old communications.”

Not only does it look like a fad, but also “it sounds like one. It is supplier-driven by people like me, and especially survey companies and consultants. I judge a lot of Employee Engagement and Internal Communications Awards – I can’t remember many entries that were much more than ‘engaging communication’ masking the usual top-down leadership style.

“It’s driven by corporate HR and Communications giving people like us something else to do, which looks like a dark art that only ‘people’ experts can navigate.”

Another observation he made is that the concept has been assumed to be an organisational one rather than a personal one. “It is presumed that it is the preserve of the corporation to do employee engagement to their people through activities organised by HR, Comms, Marketing, L&D, etc. Alternatively there is a rich seam of contrasting thinking that suggests becoming engaged is actually a personal intrinsic process – people elect to be engaged or not despite all the corporate stuff thrown at them.”

A sop to liberalism

He also pointed out that despite all the rhetoric, surveys and programmes – “the stuff” – the actual experience of work still “feels more like command and control than well-governed mutuality.”

Indeed, engagement levels both in the UK and North America “remain stubbornly stuck around 30%, which begs the question ‘what is the missing link?’”

He had something to say about social media too. “Many argue that social media will liberate people’s creativity in the interests of the firm and the individual. But …you cannot expect that if you don’t change from authoritarian leadership to more mutual models…Social media is often a sop to liberalism masking continued coercive leadership.”

Finally, just a few at the C-Suite and board level “have followed the employee engagement story.”

Engage for Success, which I am currently involved in by chairing the Cross Cultural and Social Media sub-groups, is frustrated that we have not penetrated adequately the C-Suite yet, with some fabulous exceptions. David MacLeod and Nina Clarke have done a brilliant job of getting the topic this far – hats off to them. Five years on, they are still at it.”

What to do constructively?

Smythe was clear when making his objections. He also looked at them constructively and shared some personal suggestions, including: “more work on definition.

“At Engage for Change we say people engage themselves when they are invited to challenge and contribute to operational decisions and opportunities that affect them, and which they can improve and accelerate.”

He was very decisive when claiming that decision-making needs to pass this test because “Gen Y, Z and coming generations will not put up with a command and control style.”

He suggested inquiring more into the intrinsic drivers of engagement to answer the question of why people engage. “The current presumption that extrinsic organisational top down drivers are the main enablers should be explored and challenged.”

Another area he believes needs consideration is “the power issue. Leaders need to govern more mutually to encourage their people’s creativity.”

Finally, employee engagement needs to be taken to the C-Suite. “Not the survey, and not the programme. But the argument that if the C-Suite engage people wisely in forming and executing strategy, then performance will surge. Leaders need to adapt to being guides rather than gods.”

The employee engagement mess

Professor of organisational psychology at the University of Bath’s School of Management Rob Briner, did not have a more enthusiastic view to share.

Similarly to Smythe he commented on the fact that there is no agreed definition. “This definitional mess must not be ignored or trivialised. Without a clear and agreed definition of engagement we literally do not know or understand what we’re talking about or doing.”

He also pointed out there is no evidence that employee engagement can be reliably measured. “There is currently no quality research showing that if you implement this idea it will increase performance.”

He did mention the popular study by Engage for Success The Evidence. In his view the research fails at providing direct or clear support. “For example, claims about cause and effect used results from cross-sectional studies and many of those cited did not even measure or mention engagement but rather other concepts such as commitment and satisfaction.”

Academics vs. practitioners

A rosier picture came from the CIPD. For Research and Adviser Jonny Gifford, “relatively speaking employee engagement has been a successful notion.”

“It is an idea that’s taken hold. The fact that we are debating it now shows that, in some sense at least, it’s successful.”

Indeed he acknowledged the confusion and contradictions that come from unclear definitions. But, he also drew the difference between the worlds of academics and practitioners. In his view, academic research needs to nail the definitions as far as it can. Yet, the “looseness of understandings of employee engagement is not a fatal flaw for practitioners.”

“We need more research, but that’s not a stumbling block that needs to prevent us from getting out of the blocks. It’s okay for business leaders to make a start on this stuff before the academic debates are wrapped up. In fact, it’s necessary. Practitioners can’t generally wait for academics’ approval before they act.”

He also spoke about the strength, as opposed to the weakness, of the composite nature of employee engagement: “The breadth of the concept allows organisations to tailor the language and approach. This is important because strategies and activity need to be context-specific. The motivators, sense of mission and psychological contract look different in different settings, and we need to take account of this. One size does not fit all, but a broad umbrella concept can.”

He saw that many practitioners treat employee engagement as a broad area of constructive focus for people strategy and management “and for that, I commend it.”


So, is employee engagement just another management fad? Well, at the end of the debate the majority in the room seemed to think so.

The debate felt a little counter-intuitive at times in that some of the greatest exponents of engagement were arguing against the concept. It was a bit like turkeys voting for Christmas. But the question is still open; and is probably more poignant after the longest recession in living memory. Yet generational change and the shockwaves of technology on the one hand and the shift of economic power to the east on the other, all suggest that engagement is a puzzle that needs solving. The Groucho debate was a good starting point.


This article originally appeared on simply-communicate