Employee Engagement is Context Not Content

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Employee engagement is soooooo 2000 and late.

It’s all about “human” now. At least that seems to be the take away from the HRTech conference held last week in Vegas. Everything was about human connections. Bloggers blogged about it. Signs signed about it. Speakers spoke about it.

And I wrote about it – three years ago.

Yes. Human is the future of engagement. At least until some guru figures out how to make money on a different buzzword and then it will be all about – I don’t know – Oatmeal. “Oatmeal drives engagement!”

Yes, engagement is about being human. But it’s also about being human within a context of an activity… within context of purpose and linking the employee’s effort to the outcome of the organization.

It’s About Why – And That’s Why it is Hard

Do you remember being 5 or 6 years old and getting ready for school? Do you remember being excited about being in the classroom and learning new thing? Do you also remember getting older and seeing school as drudgery? School became the place that sucked the life out of you as opposed to the place that injected life into you.

We stop being engaged at school because education subtly (or maybe not so subtly) makes a transition from learning as part of a discovery process that adds value to our life, to a place where learning becomes part of a rote process based on “what you need to know” with no context. It is a cliché now that most kids will say: “Why do I need to learn algebra – I’ll never use it.”

We become less engaged with school because we lose the connection between the content and the context. We are told to learn “x” – but we aren’t invited to discover why.

Engagement = Education?

I see employee engagement along similar lines. If you think about employee engagement, it follows the same arc as your educational engagement. Engagement is typically highest during the first exposure to an organization – during the onboarding process – when we start a new job and are learning to become part of the organization and are exposed to new ideas and new processes and new people. Exciting stuff. But over time, we stop learning and go into a “production phase.” We are no longer growing and learning – we are simply responding and applying. We lose the context for our jobs. We become disconnected from the activity and the reason FOR the activity.

Many of the engagement initiatives that I am exposed to are simply repackaged platitudes from “best practices” organizations. That isn’t context. That is the icing but not the cake.

Employees want to be engaged. But they can only be engaged if they understand where they fit into the output of the organization. People are engaged when they know how their role ultimately manifests in what the customer values.

There needs to be line of sight between employee effort and company value.

I think the fundamental flaw in engagement in today’s world is twofold.

  1. One, we don’t treat people like human beings, we still treat them like resources.
  2. And two, we are more worried about the trappings of engagement than the core of engagement. We focus on the perks not the purpose – the context for the job.

We need to stop saying “you get ‘x’ for working here” and start saying “this is why what you do matters.”

Employee engagement is about that context not the content of some “me-too” perks program.

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