My thesis is that most have no idea what is meant by employee engagement:

That employee engagement isn’t something that company leaders can inspire just by being leaders.

That engagement is not an HR initiative that can be turned into talking points at a SHRM conference. Or an article on Forbes.

That when turned into an intellectualized topic for a weekly Twitter chat sounds phony.

That employee engagement is something that can only be inculcated into a company via better recruiting.

Dilbert on Engagement

I won’t bore you with paragraph after paragraph by “experts” extolling the importance of engagement to company performance or how many rockstar leaders are quoted as saying the engagement is important. But let me go to the well just once with an article penned by Josh Bersin from Deloitte, It's Time To Rethink The 'Employee Engagement' Issue.

Of all the articles I’ve read about employee engagement, Josh’s is the most thoughtful on the topic (which does not necessarily make it a great POV on EE) because it focuses on facts rather than feel-good fluff (or as I will from now on refer to as “pop HR”). At the end he wrote,

We can’t “retain” people, we can only “attract them.” We cant “engage them” but we can “inspire and support them.” We can’t only “train them” but we can “enable them to learn” and “give them the opportunities to develop.

Notice the first sentence?

Know what “attract them” means?

Recruiting.

Meaning if you wanted to – and knew how to – you could bring talent on board who already embrace engagement. No need to bring in external consultants to find out why people leave 10 minutes after their boss leaves; why even the crappiest external recruiters can get your employees interested in another crappy opportunity; or why you even have to worry about your culture.

Try engaging this:

You can't engage employees who don't want to be engaged; it's not your leadership that's broken, it's your hiring. You waste so much time hiring for fit because it feels better - and feels more human - rather than spending the time defining what great performance is to the role, the group, the function, and to the company. It's so much easier to let your supposed charismatic leaders do the work – or believe they're doing the work – than improving your recruiting function, people and processes – which isn't easy and takes time, effort, sweat and tears.

When you create a meal with subpar ingredients, you need lots of seasoning to make it taste better. And even then it might not taste great. That's employee engagement. Why not simply start with better ingredients?

Far too much emphasis in business is placed on the role of the "leader" (quotes added because most all will say, "I'll know a leader when I see one but I can't tell you what that person looks like") and far too little on personal leadership - you know, taking responsibility, doing what you said you were going to do, etc.

My parents worked very hard to teach me about personal responsibility – doing what I’ve committed to do and finding out ways to do what I’ve committed to do when things weren’t working out. We’re not born with an infallible responsibility gene but have to learn how to make things work – even when many of the “things” don’t want to work with you. Learning personal responsibility is a lifelong foray into the good, the bad, and the ugly of commitments, people and situations – and plenty of knees and elbows are skinned along the way. There’s no terminal degree or PhD in Employee Engagement; but our parents are the one’s who should have created the initial plan for building the road. You see, employee engagement isn’t a destination, it’s a journey.

And engagement sets the tone for culture – another completely misunderstood concept – where culture is what you do when no one is there to watch.

In the end, it’s worth it: Folks who learned about personal responsibility are likely those who don’t need external forces to be engaged – because they're internally engaged.

You see these people at work all the time – but you call them brown-nosers, ass-kissers, and likely a few other phrases that even I won’t put in here. These people are just as likely to pat a leader on the back for something they’ve done to taking a peer aside and asking them why they simply refuse to answer a simple email.

These folks volunteer for tough assignments because they want to be the example for others to follow so the entire company can be successful. Yes, engaged employees are the ones who put the M & E into “t-e-a-m”. No need to be a hater.

Now guess what? You can recruit for people who are engaged.

Dilbert on Engagement

Toss aside your tired and worn bar raising questions, and ask them about personal responsibility the way you ask about performance; ask about their parents (ask them if their parents actually made them spell out the word at the dinner table like mine did). Ask them questions about early childhood, teenage, college, and early career events and how they remember these events through the filter of personal responsibility; notice their facial expressions and their body language as they answer.

You’ll have to drill down far deeper than your great ESP skills will take you – but in the end, asking What does personal responsibility mean to you? will help you understand if the person is likely internally engaged.

After practicing this line of questioning over many candidate interviews (heck, try it out on your managers and peers too), you’ll be in a better position to determine if a person might be engaged only when there’s a gun pointed at their head (or a “leader” pointing at them while uttering words of exhortation and encouragement) or if a person has the engagement make-up because of what’s in their head.

But please read the line quoted above again and consider this: If we recruit people who are already engaged, that is, make employee engagement part of the recruiting process, we’re setting the table for a great meal.

Without the seasoning…