Engagement: Our controversial view

with 10 Comments

LONDON — Everyone seems to be interested in this. It’s a code word for lots of different things. In today’s economy some are using it as a way of saying “how do we make people like the business when so many bad things have happened?” Others want to find a way of helping people focus on what really matters. Others aren’t sure, but it sounds good.

We have a view. It’s one that may sound odd at first, but maybe it will more sense after further thought.

Engagement is not a programme. It’s not something you can package and roll out. It’s not something you can seek to build centrally.

Engagement is a state of mind. It is something personal that you feel… or you don’t.

Because we are all quite different as people we respond to things differently. Some of us really get excited by making great discoveries. Some of us love our sums to add up. Some people like to work with and care for other people. Some of us love the money… and just the money.

So the real drivers of engagement in a business are not the senior leaders. It’s not the HR department or the communications team. It is not the employees either. We think it is the line manager.

The line manager — when properly skilled — can make the business work for each individuals goals. And therefore make each individual work for the businesses goals. (More often than not, unfortunately, the managers don’t have the skills to do this because the business hasn’t given them to them, which is a whole other article.)

Because we don’t have a vested interested in selling any particular ‘engagement’ product –- we can independently advise and critique current engagement activities with a focus on return on investment.

And we think that’s the cleanest and most effective way to do it.


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10 Responses

  1. Liam Fitzpatrick

    I’ve been trying to ban the very word for years – mainly because it seems to mean so many things. Here’s a short list that I’ve seen in use recently:
    * Attention grabbing (as in “If we could get people Engaged in the website…”)
    * A way of managing attendance (as in “Our engagement strategy is all about reducing sickness and absence”)
    * The state when people are committed to a course of action
    * The state when people do what senior managers tell them to without asking

    And I’ve stopped counting…


  2. Howard Krais

    I agree with the sentiment that it is about line managers and not senior leaders but the trouble is who is the line manager’s line manager? … and so on all the way up the organisation.

    If the ultimate line managers (senior leaders) aren’t inspiring their direct reports (often very senior power brokers themselves) then the whole thing can fall down

  3. Dan Gray

    It doesn’t sound odd to me; it makes perfect sense. Indeed, I’ve been saying much the same about those other oft-mistreated buzzwords ‘responsibility’ and ‘sustainability’.

    These concepts have nothing to do with discrete roles, initiatives or targets. They are, as you say, a state of mind – a way of thinking, acting and behaving.

    I wonder how many potential clients are enlightened enough to consider the benefits of such an approach though, versus those who continue to think in terms of neatly packaged, productised, tactical interventions.

  4. David Ferrabee

    You’re a brave man, Dan, to question the enlightenment of a client in this market! We can be quite critical of fellow consultancies who have a ‘whatever your problem is, I have the same answer’ approach, but in this market we find that whatever is ailing our clients is the only thing that we can afford to focus on.
    Marshall Fields and Selfridges are credited with saying “the customer is always right”, but it probably comes from the Frenchman, Cesar Ritz, who said “the client is never wrong.” The difference is subtle, but good for us.

  5. Dan Gray

    Don’t get me wrong, I’d go along with Cesar Ritz too. I’m not questioning clients’ enlightenment (I can’t afford to do that either!) so much as lamenting the notion that the current climate may provide succour for the ‘one size fits all’ brigade.

  6. David Ferrabee

    Dan, I am just teasing you. I know what you meant. Our view is that purchasing decisions of all shapes and sizes are being put off. Biro makers are suffering as much as the M&A market. The upshot is probably that many ills are being neglected and they’ll be all the worse for it when the bandages are removed.

  7. […] 26, 2009 Anyone interested in the concept of engagement would be wise to look up a great post from David Ferrabee on his Able & How blog. In it, he makes a great case for viewing engagement not as a series […]

  8. Kevin Keohane

    I always have mixed emotions. I’m not sure which irritates me more – the word “engagement” or people who insist on trying to argue about what it means when they should be doing something about it.

    It’s sort of like Values. I’m redoing a global professional services firm’s Value and have banned them from using


    … for much the same reason. Sometimes its what you DON’T say that tells volumes…

  9. Sean Trainor

    So engagement is down to the line manager…and I was expecting a controversial view. I think you will find most organisations, including those that offer packaged solutions, have been advocating this pov for many years. I believe the real controversy is that the same organisations dont seem to have been able or know how to tackle the issue, and spend a lot of time and energy arguing semantics.

  10. Chris Cox

    I agree with the sentiment, but like Kevin I think the word is the problem. I’d argue the real purpose of Internal Communications is to generate enthusiasm across an organization. Not to engage, but to enthuse.

    To most people Engagement sounds like classic business jargon, driven by a desire to control people rather than to help and support them. Hold a gun to my head and I’m engaged, but I’m not enthused. Communications today is about what you can do 4me not 2me.

    Internal Communications is about changing (or at least influencing) mass behavior. In today’s world that means colleagues influencing each other as much as leaders influencing from on high. Enthusiasm is infectious, is engagement?

    I’d bet on an enthusiastic organization against an engaged one any day… especially these days.

    h/t to John Grant for kick-starting the idea of Marketing Enthusiasm.

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