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Meet Helen. She is a sales executive for a pharma company. Helen loves her job – she is proud of the highly effective products she sells and talks enthusiastically and emotionally about the lives she helps to improve. She loves nothing better than being on the road, engaging with doctors and patients, understanding their contexts and seeing the difference she and her company make. She enjoys sharing her insights with her colleagues and learning from them. She loves having personal accountability and being recognised for achieving results.
But Helen is also frustrated about constant changes to the company; changes that are affecting her relationship with her customers and her manager, her ability to do her job and the clear narrative she and her colleagues believe is needed to distinguish their organisation from the competition. She thinks the company can do better. She is critical of senior management and organisational direction and has said so in the recent engagement survey. Her scores put her in the ‘disengaged’ category. Helen in the meantime continues to enthusiastically promote her products, engage with customers and her team and outperform many of her colleagues. 
John, a talented marketer in the same company is, on the other hand, ‘highly engaged’. Working in the head office and involved in several change committees he has the ear of senior managers. John is not sure that the changes to the organisation are well thought through, but he is certain that they provide good career opportunities. He has volunteered for several new high profile projects. He is excited and happy to work overtime, but has also failed to respond to some urgent customer queries from Helen and her colleagues. John is considering an offer from a market competitor.
What is going on here? Is the survey wrong? Is John really more engaged than Helen?  Is Helen truly disengaged? Is John’s engagement a good thing for the organisation? What sort of engagement strategy is needed to reach them both?
In fact Helen’s critical attitude is based on deeply caring for the organisation and its future. Far from being a sign of disengagement it could be seen as a sign of deep cognitive and emotional engagement with the business. Helen is a true organisational advocate. John on the other hand, is what CIPD’s Angela Baron describes as ‘transactionally engaged’[i]. According to Baron, transactionally engaged employees are likely to perform well but are also prone to ‘burnout’. They are not invested in their employer’s long term success and “are more likely to indulge in…. behaviour that might damage the organisation”.  
Few surveys could provide this level of insight on their own. This does not mean surveys are not useful – most are. But engagement is too complex to try to capture in a handful of standardised questions and in terms of a single engagement number.  For HR and Communication practitioners the challenge is to explain and illustrate that complexity. To paint the engagement picture. And by combining survey data with other employee insights, to show managers what is important to the organisation and their people and what they need to do about it. Only when we go beyond engagement survey numbers and labels and start helping managers to meaningfully engage in conversations and behaviours that matter to the Helens and Johns of our companies can we say that we are doing something about engagement.
On the 9th of March Dr Domna Lazidou, a culture and engagement communication expert, will be running a one day course on Employee Engagement for Internal Communicators. To find out more, click here or contact Sarah Magee at [email protected].
[i] Baron, A. (2013) What do Engagement Measures Really Mean? Strategic HR Review, 12, 1, pp.21-25
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