Employee engagement and participative management, Yin and Yang

In the last couple of weeks I stumbled upon the term ‘Employee engagement’ in some blogposts. The term almost sounds redundant, as one would assume employees are engaged by principle.. Research shows otherwise. Employees apparently are not engaged in their work. In 2007, a study shows that only 21% is truly engaged, implying those who work a bit harder for the sake of the company. A staggering 38% is not engaged at all. Gary Hamel suggests that this is not on the agenda because most managers are not even aware or simply do not care.  See the exhibit below for an illustration. The question is, what is the benefit of having engaged employees? And what is true engagement? Let’s find out.

For a company, having engaged employees can make the difference between being a regular or an outstanding player. Read the story of Ricardo Semler about his company Semco to get an idea of what we mean. At Semco, decision-making power is delegated to employees. Managers may or may not agree with a particular decision, but by allowing employees to participate, Semco fosters better understanding of management issues and opportunities. Employee engagement boosts awareness of the bigger picture and a shared sense of responsbility. Having engaged employees counts in every business sector.

In our projects, we try to push employee engagement by orchestrating sustained involvement and contribution. We do this not for its own sake (though we think it won’t hurt), but in order to achieve a particular purpose. According to Gary Hamel, employee engagement can be summarized as:

  • the ability to participate in decision-making
  • the encouragement given for innovative thinking
  • the availability of skill-enhancing job assignments
  • the interest shown by senior executives in employee well-being

If I would classify employee engagement, chances are that I would come up with a similar list. It looks obvious. However, the real challenge is creating a situation where employees are truly engaged. Many factors play a role, and reaching a point where you have all your employees engaged can probably not be accomplished if you make this your number one priority. We should not forget where employee engagement is coming from. Employeee engagement can only thrive if management is really participative. Employee engagement can never be the sole objective; it can only co-exist with participative management.

Participative management and employee engagement are yin and yang, they are inextricably connected. You cannot have one without the other. This duality is related to the success of a company as well. What makes employees engaged and management participative? Is a successful company the cause of increased engagement and participation, or do employees become more engaged when business is going well? Here we see another reciprocal relationship. However, success is determined and dependent by several other factors as well. My point here is that employee engagement will not increase without participative management, which can be seen as one of the conditions of employees becoming engaged. Employee engagement can not be one-way. There is no bottom-up without top-down. It is one side of an important duality within organizations.