Even a regular but cursory glance at the HR press or the ‘trade’ websites would probably have already told you as much, but we can only agree with Nita Clarke, Director of the Involvement and Participation Association (IPA), when she said that “Engagement’s time has come.” As Director of a body formerly (and rather splendidly) called the Labour Association for Promoting Co-operative Production based on the Co-partnership of the Workers, promoting engagement in the workplace is, after all, her job. As co-author of the McLeod Guidelines on promoting employee engagement to UK businesses, public and third sector organisations, her commitment could almost be taken as read – if the idea were not one with such significant potential (and as yet, often unrealised) benefits. The inner copy-editor might want, in a rather Lynne Truss-like manner, to nit pick and point out that the idea of engagement might be upon us (with the reality still to come), but laudable ideas deserve lauding. What surprised us, reading about the launch at HRZone were the comments of Lord Young, which left us wondering if he’d read the report:

Employment Relations Minister Lord Young told HRzone: “We hope it provides a really practical guide for business.” He explained how simple it was to go about engaging employees, saying: “You don’t need to go on a one week training course to do this.”

We’ve been known to sound off here occasionally when we feel that something important is being treated in a trite or shallow manner that does it a disservice. As believers that passionate belief has a time and place – and this is our place, so we’re making the time available – we’d also like to take the opportunity to jump up and down and loudly point out the difference between simplifying an issue and clarifying it. A hammer is much simpler than a circular saw, but then the latter isn’t a blunt instrument.

I’m sure Lord Young’s remark was made off the cuff and was intended as nothing other than encouraging – to (quite rightly, from both employers’ and employees’ points of view) stir leaders, senior and line managers (and HR professionals too) into doing more to increase engagement at work. But …

… given that there has been felt to be a need for a major report, published guidelines, and a national roadshow of business celebs to launch all this, my impression is that – even if they have been aware of the importance of engagement – people aren’t naturally and instantly grasping what it means for them. As David McLeod himself pointed in an earlier article for HRZone, there are “some very simple steps that any business can take”, which he briefly summarised under a handful of headings:

  • Analyse your own behaviour
  • Communicate strategy
  • Make communication two-way
  • Reach out for ideas
  • Keep checking in.

Not in themselves complex ideas, of course. But these are behaviours and habits, not processes and practices that can be documented and rolled-out. Given the difficulty that even well-intentioned organisations can have in implementing the latter, the behavioural and cultural aspects of encouraging and inspiring engagement should trigger a little voice that says something to the effect that “this is an excellent idea, but we shouldn’t believe it’s necessarily going to be that easy to achieve”.

At one level, Lord Young is – of course – right. A week long training course isn’t the answer. Mainly because behavioural and cultural change isn’t a one-off event. It’s not like having your appendix removed, where a quick operation and a few days recovery will see you safely set on a new path. It’s more likely a change of diet or giving up smoking or drinking: there may be a commemorative date when we committed ourselves to action, but – unlike our appendices – our habits grow back if we’re not watchful. Just as the now teetotal are only one drink away from being an alcoholic again, newly engaging managers and employers don’t have to miss too many staff meetings, forget too many announcements or omit soliciting of that many opinions before they find that the engagement has been fairly abruptly broken off.

Engagement in the workplace isn’t so fundamentally different from engagement outside of it: it’s not a case of one party going down on one knee, uttering undying affection and offering jewellery so much as a commitment. Maybe it’s the side effect of writing during a general election campaign, but it’s not ultimately the promises that matter as much the delivery on them – and the degree to which our on-going behaviour matches our fine words. It’s a point with made before, but two parts need to – in life, as in grammar – engage with each other, or engage in something mutually. One party engaging at another will end in tears, or a departure.

Of course, we’re not saying that our nation’s managers are incapable of overcoming their less desirable habits, or of mending their ways. Development is an inherently optimistic activity, and we must always believe that there is room of improvement and capacity for redemption. But we do know that the overwhelming majority of people can’t change their habits or their behaviour based just on willpower. And we also know that the learning and development doesn’t end when an event ends. Although the staff conferences, regular meetings, open and away days and more that are referenced through the online version of the guidelines are all to be praised, it’s keeping at it that makes a lasting difference.

So while a week long training course might not be the answer, something more effective might be: a longer programme that wraps around these regular events a range of activities that are designed with transfer and application in mind; that provide support, monitoring of progress, encouragement; that develops managers and employees abilities to give and receive feedback constructively and sensitively. And all of which has thoroughly thought through links to line manager practices, HR policy and process, reward and recognition and performance appraisal procedures.

The McLeod Report was 18 months in the authoring, and much time and energy (and money) has been spent in developing the guidelines, promoting them and the broader issue, and organising events around the country. No training course at all, or one that treats engagement as the latest magic pill that can be swiftly swallowed to solve all our ills, would be a lamentable return on all that investment. And no-one likes feeling jilted …

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