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What Is Engagement? Going Beyond the Buzzword

It's a testament to the power of buzzwords: As recently as a decade ago, if you heard the word "engagement," your mind probably would have conjured up images of a guy getting down on one knee in a fancy restaurant, diamond rings and wedding plans. But now, you likely think first of things like increasing mindshare among your target customer demographic or ways in which you're elevating employee performance. On the flipside, buzzwords also tend to suffer from overuse and lack of context. Think about how we once talked about how important it was to get "hits" or "eyeballs" for a website. Or even today, when companies are encouraged to leverage "the cloud" or "big data" to improve their operations. It's worth noting that these terms often have real, coherent definitions, but the meaning and impact get diluted when they're used over and over again to peddle everything from soup to nuts. Consequently, after burning white-hot, popular opinion on a buzzword can turn ice-cold quickly. In those cases, it becomes thought of as a jargon-y phrase that's being used to make speakers seem smarter than they actually are or cover up deficiencies in a product or service—and accordingly, can be dismissed as so much bovine manure when they come up in conversation. Engagement is undeniably a buzzword in business-speak today, but what's the real substance behind the term? And does it have enough value as a concept to build employee incentives strategies around? Industry experts agree: When engagement comes up in the context of workforce management generally—and rewards and recognition programs in particular—it should be in reference to how employees associate their skills, experience and job tasks with the defined objectives of their organization. "Employee engagement is a big-picture, overarching approach that seeks to connect employees to the organization and focuses them on company goals," said Susan Adams, director of engagement at Dittman Incentive Marketing, located in New Brunswick, N.J. "Engagement revolves around the emotional and intellectual commitment individuals have to their work," said Mike Ryan, senior vice president at Madison Performance Group, based in New York City. "That means the job itself, but also their relationship to their co-workers, managers and company leadership." "Employee engagement is the emotional commitment an employee has to the organization and its goals," said Rick Blabolil, president of Marketing Innovators International, based in the Chicago area. "This means engaged employees actually have an emotional connection to their work and their company. It's not just about a paycheck or the next promotion. There is a true connection to the organization and the organization's goals. "When employees care this much, they are engaged, and they use discretionary effort," he added. "This means the engaged worker works overtime when needed, without being asked. It means the engaged salesperson doesn't hesitate in picking up discarded paper on the store floor. This means the call-center agent will take the call just before a shift change. Engaged employees lead to better business outcomes." Or, as former Campbell's Soup CEO Doug Conant put it, "To win in the marketplace, you must first win in the workplace." You could spend days poring over the industry research that shows how organizations with engaged employees score higher on everything from customer satisfaction to stock-price increases. For example, Adams cited a 2013 report from Aon Hewitt that found, "each incremental percentage of employees who became engaged would predict an additional 0.6 percent growth in sales." Additionally, according to research from Towers Perrin, companies with engaged workers have 6 percent higher net-profit margins, Blabolil said. He also shared data from Kenexa indicating that businesses with substantial levels of engaged employees will deliver returns to shareholders that are five times higher than average over the course of five years. On the other side of the net, there are high costs associated with disengagement. Blabolil pointed to recent research from Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends, which examined engagement levels in approximately 2,500 organizations across 90 countries. Important findings included:

  • 86 percent of business and HR leaders believe they don't have an adequate leadership pipeline (and 38 percent see this as an urgent problem).

  • 79 percent believe they have a significant retention and engagement problem (and 26 percent see it as a crucial, pressing issue).

  • 75 percent are struggling to attract and recruit the people they need (and 24 percent believe it's urgent).

  • 77 percent do not feel they have the right HR skills to address these problems (and 25 percent consider it to be an immediate need).

  • Only 17 percent feel they have a compelling and engaging employment brand.