Your Employees Are Engaged: Just Not in What You Hoped

In 1985, I took my first job in the aerospace industry. On day 1, an HR person showed me to a conference room, handed me a thick manual, and said, “Read this.” That was onboarding. It took 4 hours to read the manual. I had nothing else to do—nothing else to be engaged in.

Imagine trying that onboarding process today with digitally connected hires. Who could make it through a dull, mostly irrelevant manual when the Internet is a tap away?

When studies from Gallup warn of mass “disengagement” at work, I question what they’re measuring. New hires who would rather scroll through Instagram than read the HR manual are engaged—just not in what you intended. U.K. office workers think they’re only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes per day, not because they’re disengaged but because they’re over-engaged in swarms of tasks.

Perhaps engagement is better understood as an action rather than a state of being. To change what employees are engaged in, the HR community should reconsider what engagement is and how we cultivate it.

Defining Engagement

People use the word “engagement” as if we all know what they mean by it. We don’t, so let’s try on a definition: Engagement is deliberate attention. It’s choosing where to concentrate our intellect, actions, and sense of meaning. It enables intentional action, critical thinking, and behavioral change.

When people speak of the “employee experience,” they’re talking about what employees engage in from moment to moment. What we notice becomes the experience. William James, the father of American psychology, put it this way: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.”

To say that someone is “disengaged” is to claim that he or she is not paying attention to anything, which is unlikely. An average American who spends 2 workdays per month on Facebook is paying attention to something. What we engage in, not whether we’re engaged, is the issue.

The Mass Communicators

We could fill a Kindle (or a shelf) with new books offering the secrets to engagement and attention. Their titles often start with one word and a colon: Hooked, Riveted, Contagious, Friction, and Different, to name a few. The message of this growing genre is that mass communication is becoming a fundamental human skill.

Today’s teens learn that to grab attention, they’d better mass text and Snapchat material that can’t be ignored. Businesspeople learn to write catchier subject lines, tell better stories, and bullet or bold anything to be remembered. Teachers make school feel like entertainment, not academics. Digital platforms reward communicators who are interesting, provocative, and catchy.

To judge this trend as good or bad misses the point. Businesses operate in this environment whether they want to or not. HR’s e-mails about 401(k) plans and health insurance compete for attention, too—but perhaps in the wrong places.

De-Aggregating Communication

To recap, “disengagement” is really when employees engage in things that aren’t valuable to their companies. Attention is fickle, in part because everyone has become skilled at hooking audiences. What can HR do?

We need to de-aggregate employee communications from crowded channels. Consider the difference between reading Google News and reading The Economist. In Google News, the catchiest headline on a given subject wins the top spot and the most ad revenue. Aggregation promotes fierce competition. In The Economist app, however, communication is de-aggregated. Whatever you choose, The Economist wins.

At most workplaces, people constantly check e-mail, the ultimate aggregator, along with 5 to 10 other sources (Hangouts, Skype, Salesforce, Slack, Facebook, etc.). It’s Google News on steroids. As in a newsfeed, these communications all compete to seem important. To call it “noise” is an understatement. It’s more like listening to 10 bands on 10 different speakers in 1 room.

Some neuroscientists find that the consequent multitasking is stressful; inefficient; exhausting; IQ-slashing; and, worst of all, self-reinforcing. If we owe attention to 10 platforms (never mind Instagram), what good is engagement? De-aggregation means making communication channels less numerous, distracting, and multipurposed. It means creating environments in which people engage in something instead of everything.

What We Do, Not How We Feel

Today, if we could convince people to focus on something for 4 hours—as HR expected me to do in 1985—imagine what they could accomplish. There is no shortage of engagement in the modern workforce. There’s a shortage of technologies designed to focus rather than fragment that engagement.

Let’s stop thinking of engagement as a feeling. Instead, let’s focus on what people are engaged in and how we as HR leaders shape their choice.

Keith Kitani is the CEO & Co-Founder of GuideSpark.