Til Death Do Us Part? Models of Engagement

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Last week I had the pleasure of discovering the Champagne Bar at St Pancras station in London in the company of Michael Klein, an excellent internal comms professional currently based in Brussels. The subject of engagement came up, and Mike got pretty passionate. He thinks that the term “engagement” is bandied about too lightly and that organizations haven’t really thought through what kind of engagement they mean or really want. While he has articulated his ideas in the context of employee/employer relations, I think his ideas are worth reflection for PR practitioners, so I asked him if we could re-print his 2007 blog post on the topic here, and he graciously agreed.

An Alternative View of Engagement: The ”Rifle”, “Mat”, “Gearshift”, and “Ring”

By Mike Klein

Part of the problem with the whole discussion of “Engagement” is the lack of a consistent definition and approach.  But there are some common assumptions inherent in most of what’s being said about “Engagement” including:

  • Engagement is about improving morale, commitment, and employee productivity
  • Engagement is linear, starting at a point of “zero” or “disengaged”, and moving progressively upward
  • Engagement is about employees, period.
  • Engagement is the state that all companies should pursue for all employees.  Companies that reject this view are bad and wrong.
  • Engagement can be successfully delivered through top-down-one-size-fits-all (TD OSFA) approaches, and that’s the only fair way to do it because it’s wrong to treat employees differently.

Dueling Definitions

The above approach to “Engagement” is consistent with a number of popular definitions.  The best example is the definition offered by the “Corporate Leadership Council” as:

“the extent to which an associate commits to something or someone in their organization.”

But Webster’s offers a much more robust definition than do the fine folks at the Corporate Leadership Council:

1 a : to pledge oneself : PROMISE b : GUARANTEE <he engages for the honesty of his brother>

2 a : to begin and carry on an enterprise or activity <engaged in trade for a number of years> b : to take part : PARTICIPATE <at college she engaged in gymnastics> c : to give attention to something : DEAL <the author’s unwillingness to engage with our political system — C. E. Rosenberg>

3 : to enter into conflict or battle

4 : to come together and interlock (as of machinery parts) : be or become in gear

Building from Webster’s definition, an alternative view of engagement falls out:

  • There is no such thing as “disengagement” as long as an individual has any contact with an organization
  • Engagement is neither a virtue nor a vice—merely a characterization of the nature and intensity of one’s relationship with an organization

Four distinct forms of engagement emerge:

  • The engagement of the “rifle”—battle: active opposition
  • The engagement of the “mat”—wrestling: active disagreement, but within a productive context
  • The engagement of the “gearshift”-mechanical: productivity without resistance
  • The engagement of the “ring”-mutual, heartfelt, emotional commitment:

Four Forms of Engagement

The Engagement of the Rifle

Current models of “Engagement” may consider active hostility, opposition or sabotage indicative of “disengaged” employees (or for that matter, “disengaged” managers or corporate alumni).  But being willing to behave disruptively or attempt to damage the organization or its reputation cannot by any rational definition be seen as “disengagement”.  These people are highly engaged.  They care about the organization, and they are determined to pay it back for any real or imagined slights.

The implications of having a section of staff reflecting an “engagement of the rifle” can be profound—they can undermine the enthusiasm of fellow staff members, they can make claims about product and service quality on internet bulletin boards—and, in company towns, can spread rumors that can undermine the stability of the company-community relationship.  Even those employees who may seem “apathetic” may go home and moan to their spouses, who then do the rumor-spreading for them.

What’s important about looking at the “engagement of the rifle” is not simply that people so engaged are aggressive and hostile.  Instead, it demonstrates a level and intensity of engagement that can potentially be channeled and harnessed in a more appropriate direction.  For many organizations—finding a way to identify, address, and channel “rifle-engagement” more productively may be the first kind of engagement effort they need.

The Engagement of the Mat

Some may see a wrestling match as a kind of battle akin to that fought with rifles.  But there are two major distinctions—wrestling is physically intense but not lethal, and wrestling is a form of physical engagement that takes place within the context of established boundaries and rules.

Disagreements within organizations can bring friction, discord and disruption to boardrooms, conference rooms, offices and laboratories.  But many of those disagreements yield or prompt the innovations, realizations and realignments that make organizations more responsive to customers, more efficient to operate, and more honest places in which to work.  Is a manager who is upset about the outcome of a decision unhappy?  Sure.  But is an unhappy manager who is forming a coalition to seek the reevaluation of an adverse decision “disengaged”?  Absolutely not!   She is deeply engaged—and she and her coalition are taking their collective engagement to the mat.

Many organizations want their people to be engaged on the mat.  They are seeking new opportunities, to achieve ambitious targets with fewer resources, and desperately require internal challenge, and often bring in external support for framing those challenges.  Does anyone pay Booz Allen or Accenture to come into an organization and sing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy?” For some organizations, the engagement approach they may first need involves creating, licensing and incentivizing staff to challenge the way they work and the way the organization meets challenges.

The Engagement of the Gearshift

For many people, work is about going to the plant or the office, doing everything that comes across the desk in a way that meets with their supervisor’s consent, and going home and getting on with the rest of their lives.  Some may complain that this is a “disengaged” way to work, but examined closely, it’s a mechanical form of engagement—the person comes into the process, does his/bit, and exits the process at the end of the day.

This kind of engagement and the organizations that foster it are heavily criticized by those who see “Engagement” as a kind of moral imperative that must be brought by force to all organizations.

But the “engagement of the gearshift” persists for a number of reasons which are hardly immoral on their face.  Some employees do not want jobs or positions that interfere with their non-work lives—they want to go to work, do their jobs, and go home, and have the mind space to worry about their children, churches, crafts or communities.

To be fair, the “engagement of the gearshift” is something that has been the design of companies, and it has manifested itself in many ways.  Companies close factories in the West and outsource to contract manufacturers in China.  They close call centers in Manchester and replace them with call centers in Mumbai.  They hire contractors and consultants to perform short term assignments.  With continuing pressure on profits and resources, companies—particularly those who compete on price–will relentlessly continue to pursue the mechanical and flexible form of engagement that the “gearshift” offers.

This is not to say that the “engagement of the gearshift” must be purely one way and transactional.  Effective engagement within such organizations can be built out of an honest understanding of organizational, employee and manager ambitions, and by identifying opportunities where participation can strengthen the organization’s commercial offerings or production processes.  (Jim Shaffer’s “The Leadership Solution” provides some excellent examples).

The Engagement of the Ring

With apologies to JRR Tolkien, we now come to “the Engagement of The Ring”—the level of exceptional emotional commitment, supernormal productivity, and unbounded corporate enthusiasm many who speak of “Engagement” actively seek.

Indeed, if and when they reach that point, they offer the organization their “ring”—their willingness to “honor, love, and obey”.
In seeking the “engagement rings” of their staffs, however, are organizations willing to wear those rings forever?  Indeed, are organizations willing to offer anything at all?

The Corporate Leadership Board’s definition of engagement: “the extent to which an associate commits to something or someone in their organization”, is particularly classic in that it spells out no role or responsibility on the organization’s part in the engagement equation.

Indeed, it is fair to ask whether organizations should want to seek or take the “engagement rings” of its employees.  If “Engagement” is a state of mutual happiness in an organization, will it create cultures that stifle dissent, innovation and change?  If it is about “extraordinary mutual commitment” and there are deep senses of obligation on both sides, can such an organization withstand competition from companies whose approaches are honest but far more flexible?

Most importantly–if companies who have sought the “engagement of the ring” then decide to seek more flexibility and fewer obligations, will the ensuing sense of betrayal result in the “engagement of the rifle”?

I do see companies for whom “the engagement of the ring” makes sense—companies where personal involvement in the product or the process of delivering it makes it a unique, premium offering. Effectively achieving “engagement of the ring” needs to balance the exceptional things the organization is willing to offer with the exceptional commitment sought from its managers and staff.

In Closing:

The “Four Forms Of Engagement” is but a starting point—a first salvo in the effort to inject a new and strategic perspective in the industry’s discussion of engagement, and its effort to formulate approaches that meet client needs and respect the level of participation of all involved.
It does represent a full frontal assault, however, on the idea that “Engagement” is some kind of a one-size-fits-all (OSFA) solution, or a normative result that all responsible organizations “must achieve”.

For we internal communicators didn’t invent engagement, we are not introducing it to anyone, nor are we responsible for its success.  Engagement exists in some form among all employees, managers, suppliers and customers of all organizations.  The value we can add is by channeling it: effectively, honestly and responsibly.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Usually, Kristen is ambulatory and in one piece when we meet in London. Kevin, on the other hand, is usually lugging an incapacitated appendage or two, hence the choice of less glamorous surroundings near his South London home.

  2. I am probably misled by the aggressive terminology which I thought was mostly typical of advertisers, rather than employee communicators, but I am not sure if this approach is consistant with some of my stronger beliefs, which are:

    a: employees are only one, and not necessarily the most important (this is situational) of an organization’s stakeholder groups (in fact you do say this at the very end of your post..);

    b: the is a significant conceptual, but even more, operational difference, in my view, between involving and engaging:

    Involvement is a situation in which the organization allows user-friendly access, and listens carefully to input from, its various stakeholder groups about organizational activities and processes ; and this, for any responsible organization, is a must and, at the same time, the same organization recognizes that stakeholders themselves decide to be such, whether the organization likes it or not.

    Engagement is, instead, a more active interaction with the more relevant stakeholders which the organization, in this case, selects to sit around a physical or digital tabel with. In this case, the worst and most often scenario is that the organization selects invitees on the basis of whether they agree or not with its positions, rather than based on their real relevance and real or potential impact on pursued objectives.

    In both situations (involvement and engagement) the responsibility, and the correlated effectiveness, of the organization’s efforts largely rely on the quality of the contents and channels of involvement, and the representativeness of those it selects to engage with.

    I certainly agree that a one-size-fits-all approach to these issues is as good (i.e. nil) as any other one-size-fits-all approach to any managerial issue.

  3. Toni — To be fair, Mike’s thoughts were originally drafted on the subject of employee engagement, which explains why he doesn’t talk much about other stakeholders. I’m the one who thought that these ideas could be extended (however perfectly) to think about engagement with other groups.

    Regarding your terminology, I’m not sure I’ve EVER heard an organization strive for employee (or other stakeholder) INVOLVEMENT, whereas many toss “engagement” around fairly cavalierly.

    Kevin — It also helps when the only time we can meet is when one of us has to catch the Eurostar back to the Continent!

  4. In no way did I intend to be critical, except for the battle terms in what one would hope is a ‘struggle’ to make sense out of things and relationships…. I think the post gives good insights and is useful.
    What worries me as you know, Kristem, is that employee communicators are being hammered by corporate spinners and hacks to transform employees into living loudspeakers on behalf of socalled values and beliefs the organizational leadership stands for, disregarding whether they are for or against society…
    One of the companies most notably famous for its ‘stakeholder engagement’ practices was Lehman Brothers.. the winner of many corporate social responsibility awards was Enron…in Italy it was Parmalat..must I continue???

  5. Toni–I actually think that you and Mike are in agreement. He’s not necessarily promoting any of these models, he’s just raising the point that the word engagement has many facets and that organizations need to use the term in a more thoughtful manner.

    With regard to the Ring model, one point not discussed by Mike is that marriage is theoretically “until death do us part” but in reality it’s more often “until the legal settlement do us part”. That’s an interesting parallel with the shift from a whole-career loyalty between employer and employee to the emerging model of greater employee mobility and even a free agent model for a lot of functions.

    By touching on values, I think you have planted the seen of an entire other post!

  6. Lots of very interesting ideas. I think, though, that the idea of the four forms of engagement, as well as the difference between involvement and engagement can be conciliated through a model representing something like a “cycle of relationship”.

    In reality these are dynamic concepts which, in my view, describe better states of relationship in an evolutionary and diachronic approach. For example, before engagement there should be involvement, before involvement there should be acknowledgment. Additionally, engagement can vary according to the moment and situation and become stronger, evolve and decline. What happens when engagement declines? Disillusion? If so, though disillusion can be a form of involvement, it’s certainly different from the original involvement.

    So I think all this is very rich terrain for further elaboration.

    Speaking to the point that Toni consistently raises about the spin in employee relations, here are some points about the issue:
    1. corporate communications (or for the matter even HR) are not the sole owners of engagement processes inside an organization (people develop a lot of activities which engage them with the organization appart from our efforts)
    2. the internal communication system can be used by these people without necessarily being controlled or managed by corporate comms (the philosophy of internal symmetrical communication systems is about creating these possibilities; the web 2.0 revolution with its growing impact in internal communication)
    3. the issue of companies increasingly considering the key role of employees in change processes is in itself a positive evolution in the sense that employees are increasingly being considered as actors and not just as by standers or information consumers.
    4. there are a lot of issues (for example industrial safety; ethics and compliance; etc) in which companies have not just the right but the obligation (moral, legal, economical, others) to engage their employees and in which they should be firm and strict.

  7. Joao,
    excellent points you make, and I agree.
    The four merits you indicate concerning my fears that employees today, more than ever, are being trained and used by corporate public relations as (to use a politically acceptable word) ‘ambassadors’ towards other stakeholder groups, have essentially to do with change processes inside (or in the immediate surroundings of) the organization’s activities.

    These practices have alwasy been an essential, and as you say ‘horizontal’, part of the personnel function (now called human resources).
    The fact that this task is in many cases assigned today to the public relations function induces me in thinking that organizations are more concerned with ensuring a seamless consistency of how all their actors represent the organization they work for the outside world, more than with ensuring the quality of their productivity and committment to the inhouse performance their contractual obligations require.

    Having said this, I am attracted by the way you integrate the ‘relationship cycle’, and would very much welcome more thoughts on this, as it not only refers to employees, but to any other stakeholder group.
    I hope you will focus on a specific post related to this aspect so that we can all learn, compare and elaborate an area which certainly needs more intelligent rationalization, as it is highly crucial in a phase in which public relations is gradually transiting to a stakeholder relationship governance mode.

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