What It Really Means to Be Engaged

The term “engagement” is currently one of the most talked about human capital management issues. But engagement — at least as the word is formally defined — isn’t a human resources initiative or technical area of measurement. 

Engagement is the relationship between two entities. In business, this typically is viewed as the relationship between a company — or manager — and employee.

When we, as HR professionals, speak of engagement with a capital “E,” we’re thinking of it as an organizational phenomenon — the psychological and emotional linkage between the workforce and the company. With this as the starting point, we tend to think of ways to improve employee engagement.

But this view can mask a more critical level of engagement: the relationship between employee and supervisor. 

Many studies have confirmed that a boss-subordinate relationship has a greater influence on performance and retention than the organization-employee relationship. In essence, people work for their boss, not their company; just as people quit their boss, not their company.

So how do we foster a relationship between these two parties?

As my mother once told me as I researched this topic, “It seems like common sense to me.” Family relationships are a prime example. How do you bring parents and siblings closer together? By showing love, trust and respect, often within a clearly defined hierarchy of the family unit.  

In organizations, there is often a similar chain of command, with most accepting that managers make more money and perks than frontline workers.

How do we bridge this gap? 

To me, this is what engagement is all about — building a comfortable bridge between supervisors and employees.

Now, this is often a one-to-one game. To make the game simple, let’s remove organizational factors; let’s get the system out of the way so that personal relationships can emerge. In many manager-employee relationships, this means eliminating 90 percent of the “rules.”

Reduce verbiage to “common sense” statements about what is expected and what is given inreturn. Tell me, the employee, what I have to do to be successful, not to avoid punishment.

When talent managers design programs, forget the structures of the past and rethink the purpose of each program. When it comes to benefits, all people want is safety, good health and financial security — and they want it as simple as possible. On training and development, people want easy access to learning resources. When we think of employee relations, view it from a communications perspective. Interpersonal communication is the most pervasive human activity. It’s constant and everywhere.

Therefore, rather than inhibit this essential activity by rules and acceptable channels, open it up. Whether the news is good or bad, talent professionals need to know it and share it.

Let’s return to the family example. What do you do in your family if you have some bad news? Hopefully, if your children are old enough to understand, don’t you sit down and tell them the truth in a reasonable way? 

The same can be said of you and your spouse. If you and your spouse hold back communication on a bothersome issue — sending nervous nonverbal signals that something is wrong as a result — this can scare the kids. 

It is the same in most corporate environments. Be honest. Tell the people what they want and need to know. They’re adults. They can cope with bad news, so long as it is presented openly and honestly.

If anything, keep these considerations in mind: What you put out is what you get back, what goes around comes around, treat others as you would like to be treated. 

Forget surveys and formal programs for a minute. Think about engagement at its core: to attract and hold the attention of, engross, win over, draw into, involve.

Is that how you would describe the way in which you engage your people?