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So much has been written, proclaimed, and proselytized about the virtues and value of employee engagement. Yet both anecdotally and experientially, organizations and leaders appear unable to convert employee engagement into a sustainable and tangible means of competitive advantage either in their chosen product and service markets or in their labor market.
Is this simply because our leaders and organizations are unable to engage employees, or is it more fundamental than that? Is it possible that employee engagement is only a stopgap solution? Are we aiming for the best outcome when we seek for employee engagement?
While we have significant challenges in terms of leadership development and leadership effectiveness, I would suggest that, even with a competent and committed cohort of leaders, organizations who aim for employee engagement still fall short of their fullest potential. In what context would we choose to get engaged to remain engaged? Is engagement a single step along a more intensive and long-term relationship journey? I propose that as leaders, we need to establish a far deeper sense of connection with and belonging for our people.
As complexity, ambiguity and incongruity grow exponentially, people are finding it harder to find underlying meaning and identity in their lives. Yet psychologically, we have not changed that much in a single generation that people do not need meaning and identity. Therein lies the opportunity. In an ever and faster changing life, leaders and organizations can, in a genuine way, help people find a deeper sense of purpose and meaning. By moving beyond engagement to belonging and achieving a deeper sense of trust, meaning, and belonging, the individual is more committed, connected, and ultimately more effective in how they apply themselves to their world of work.
Underpinning this requires a fundamental shift in leadership mindset and practice. Leaders focused on employee engagement will tend to establish individual connections and show personal care and support. While these are necessary endeavours, they are insufficient. They create a sense of engagement of the employee with their leader but less so with the deeper contribution their organization makes to society. Furthermore, the absence of the individual leader creates an immediate risk to the employee’s level of engagement. If the employee is both engaged with their leader and holds a deeper sense of trust, belonging and identification with the organization then the loss of the leader does not automatically lead to the loss of the employee.
It is the work of organizations to create a deeper sense of trust, identity and belonging. It is the work of organizations to help their employees find meaning and impact.. It is the work of the organization to provide individuals in tumultuous times a sense of their true north. In so doing organizations can move beyond employee engagement, and as a result, both employees and organizations will become more connected, committed and sustainable.