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There’s a book and website on “employee engagement is not enough”. The point of the book is that we need passionate employees. Well let’s forget it. It helps to have passionate employees. But you can hardly expect from all people to be passionate all the time about all aspects of their job. It’s an illusion. Look at the figures. The actively engaged employees are a minority. Many people come to work and want to do well in their jobs but nothing more. Is it a problem that many people work to earn a decent income to support their family? Not at all. Like Obama says: it’s about work, but it’s more about family.
So let’s not overestimate the importance of employee engagement. Let’s not overestimate the importance of HR for its development. Let’s go back to what is essential in work. Why people work is important.  Let’s not be normative or naïve. As business managers we can only offer a job and work context that fit to what is important to people. There is no hocus-pocus, only common sense.

Focus on the Context, not on Employee Engagement

So employee engagement is not enough. Sometimes it might be too much to ask. Let’s stop asking people to be passionate, or happy, or spiritual. We should not focus too much on psychological states. It does not work. It’s better to work on the input factors that might lead to those psychological states. Why? Because you can only control that. And if a company works on that, the output will be in most cases beneficial. And in some cases there will be no positive reaction at all.
And how can you create the fit between what is important for someone and the work context?

  • Start with listening to the people who work in your company. Empathy and exchange are crucial.
  • Recruit and select people with the right attitude and values. Focus on the fit with the company and not on competencies and immediate return.
  • Accept and acknowledge that people work for a living. Don’t expect everyone to look for a higher level of being at work.
  • Don’t be spiritual as employer. Be spiritual as a human being.
  • If people work for a living, make sure you help people to manage the interference of personal and professional roles. Make sure employees feel that you find it important that they lead a balanced life.
  • Get the basics right. Decent work. Decent Pay. Decent environment.
  • Be clear on what is possible and what is not. There’s no point in trying to be a company that you are not.
  • Apply common sense to your employee relations.
  • Do not put targets on employee engagement. Don’t force people into engagement.

Employee Engagement is not enough. It’s sometimes irrelevant. Focus on the input factors and go back to basics. It’s the context that matters. And don’t be disappointed that not everyone is spontaneously as engaged as you. That’s life.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.


  • Sthita says:

    I agree with the points made in the article. Having been leading employee communications, I understand this “target driven approach” and only communication or HR relations alsone cannot solve the conundrum. One size does not fit all and tailor made solutions may not be as necessary as thought out to be. Organizations must move from being, ‘preachy’, ‘figurehead’ to enabler/ facilitator for an employee to be ‘productive’. Right information, tools, resouces are the key “Hard” ingredients. Empathy, facilitation and a sense of welfare is but the necessary “Soft” ingredient. That balance coupled with “good intent” can translate into good practices for engagement. And the law of diminishing returns apply.

  • Bharat says:

    There are many different reasons for employee disengagement as there maybe for engagement. While engagement at all times is not possible, disengagement is a bad formula. Companies are running a relay race and as such a weal link can be the difference between winning and loosing. So it is important to figure out how to engage them while at work and I agree one has to listen and understand what makes an employee engage/disengage. I agree one size does not fit all, most employees want to succeed, however many times it’s not obvious how their work fits into the overall picture.
    The myth that large companies can not relate everyone’s work to overall company success needs to be broken down. It is my belief, if you can’t measure a function/activity, you don’t need it. The proof of this idea is when a company gets into trouble, the layoffs start with non essential personnel, so if the company knew this, why did they have it! Most consultant study show that 20 to 30% of the cost can be removed without any adverse impact.
    So the company culture has to be one of measurable results through measurable engagement.

  • Ivy says:

    This is an interesting article. It sure does raise very important issues around, focusing more on the real issues can create even better work relationships.

  • Piers Bishop says:

    Engagement was just another bandwagon word like wellbeing, job satisfaction and all the rest. It was never going to save mankind because it’s an abstract concept, devoid of real meaning until unpacked into practical terms.
    We’re pragmatists – our own performance management tool is all about the things that get in the way of work or feel uncomfortable to the employee. One criticism of this approach is that it focusses on problems, but we stand by that – if engagement appears to rise it will almost always be because someone has done something practical to improve working conditions, usually by removing an obstacle to performance.
    We suggest that the core task of the manager is not to think in abstractions but to know where the obstacles are and reframe them as opportunities for change. You could argue that it doesn’t matter hugely if it’s an ‘engagement’ measure that prompts such an exercise – but we think it’s surely better to know what is wrong in a practical sense than an abstract one.

  • Melanie says:

    My employer is pretty much what you wrote. Sometimes I do feel sorry for him though, because he has created this engagement atmosphere, and every single employee feels that they need to share their personal life crisis with him. We even joke about it now….we have decided that we work at the Heart Break Hotel!

  • I very much agree that we should go back to the input factors. Employee engagement is output: it is the result of a number of conditions that might be in place, or might not be. The list of inputs you present is fairly complete! Maybe one more:
    – be clear on what you stand for and want to achieve as a company (goals, strategy, vision) and patiently communicate it over and over again; leave the ‘how to achieve’ or the action and decision making to the teams in the organisation.
    This impacts the leadership role. In this view, a leader leads, and doesn’t manage. People (and teams) manage.

  • John says:

    Perhaps it became too much of an abstract concept? It’s not about spirituality – most of the people work primarily for a financial gain. But it doesn’t mean that they have to feel as they are forced to accomplish their daily tasks at work – they can care about their job. Communication and ongoing feedback can change a lot in that respect.

  • I am not sure about the difference between teams managing and leaders leading. (cfr Veronique’s remark). In my view there is much more collective leadership going on. A team leader needs people who take on responsibility and a part of the leadership. Leadership becomes a kind of social construction. In this sense it’s the individual and the team that has a part of the responsibility for engagement. You cannot define the cards you receive, but you can decide how to play them.

  • Eve Gaudet says:

    Best article/blog I have read on employee engagement. What started as a noble concept has become another buzzword that manifests in employee eye rolling. The inputs you put forward are not only practical but common sense

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