Engage for Success meeting on employee engagement at Ashridge Business School

I had the great pleasure of attending the Engage for Success meeting at Ashridge Business School on Friday – David McLeod of the ‘Engaging for Success’ report fame and a hundred of the E4S employee engagement ‘gurus’ were together, hosted by Kai Peters of Ashridge, to further the cause of improving engagement in the UK.

E4S_logoEngage for Success is the most visible fruit of the McLeod report to the UK Government on employee engagement. E4S combines various different kinds of people – HR staff, vendors, companies and consultants collaborating together to try to move the engagement agenda on in the UK.  It has no staff, though some of the large sponsor companies have seconded people to form a core crew to co-ordinate the E4S activities.

Of the two main items on the agenda, the more immediately important was on the report from the E4S Barriers to Engagement group on what CEOs think of the engagement agenda.  The researcher, Amy Armstrong from Ashridge, talked us through the report – I hope the whole report will be available online at the Engage For Success website in due course, but in short CEOs see three main barriers to engagement:

  • Shortcomings in their own capacity;
  • Leaders’ own behaviour;
  • The ‘system’ (e.g. hierarchy or short-termism).

All of these clearly need addressing, urgently.  But something else came out of this meeting, something which may well turn out to be more important than any of these points.  It appears that a number of CEOs find that the language of ‘employee engagement’ is, in itself, disengaging.  Now hold on – this is employee engagement we’re talking about – the great hope for our economy – how can it possibly be self-defeating in this way?  Perhaps I didn’t hear right – what did they say?

The language of ‘engagement’ is, in itself, disengaging.

In fact one CEO is quoted as saying that “If you’re looking for a snappy definition, I’d probably struggle”, and another said “Interestingly. I’ve never tried to articulate it”.

Well, having spent some years studying the interplay between language structures and human motivation, I think it is safe to say that this is quite possibly the most revealing thing that will ever be said about employee engagement.

Some, at least, of the very people who most urgently need to climb on board the engagement ‘bus’ are not doing so because they don’t know what it is.  This is a special case of a much wider linguistic problem that undermines communication between people, particularly in the business context, creating brain-fog, misunderstanding and lethargy in otherwise bright and motivated people.  There will shortly be a Team Insights white paper on this problem, and what can be done about it – I’ll post a link in the blog when it is available to download.

CEOs and MDs who can’t wait can get some clues from our website here, by the way.

In the meantime, check the Engage for Success website, where you can find research papers, slideshows and so on, and try the Engage for Success internet radio show, the link to past editions is on the website too.

Ashridge Business School, by the way, is amazing – a former monastery, taken over by Henry VIII, extended over the years and surrounded by parkland and grazing deer.  Elizabeth 1st grew up there.  It’s one of the few colleges in the UK outside Oxbridge where reception staff direct you to ‘turn right at the second chandelier’ to get to the meeting room.

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