Book review: Employee Engagement – A Little Book of Big Ideas

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Jamie Lawrence
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Title: Employee Engagement – a Little Book of Big Ideas (2nd edition)​
Author: Jamsine Gartner
ISBN: 978-0993136603
Reviewer: David Evans, Burn Bridge Associates
Reviewer's rating: 4 out of 5

In the foreword, Jamie Lawrence suggests that Gartner has written a book about the “wrongness of work”, a phrase that encapsulates the prevailing view that a majority of people in work are not engaged, or even disengaged with what they do.

Indeed, the author sets out to identify the reasons behind the low levels of engagement and to provide some tips for re-engaging our workforce. She also tries to link the development of employee engagement with the growth in productivity; understandably, since without this link the case for engagement falters somewhat!

The book’s Preface is delightful, with the author making a neat link to her subject with H.G. Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ and declaring herself to be approaching this work an anthropologist, rather than – for example – as a management scientist.

The Introduction presents the themes of the book, opining that today’s workforce is the ‘precariat’ – the existence of work is no longer assured, trust in the workplace is no longer a given and expectations that organisations are uniformly ethical are misplaced.

Gartner describes engagement as “a two-way dialogue (sic) that people have with each other about how to make a company successful”, linking the company’s strategic aims with the development of the people within it.

This is a reasonable basis for understanding the concept of engagement (it certainly chimes with research I did 10 years’ ago about the nature of employee commitment: personal development and potential-realisation are strong drivers of commitment to the workplace), and the author later makes the useful link with the concept of ‘flow’; the state of losing oneself in one’s work.

The core of the book explores the five lenses through which engagement can be viewed, which Gartner labels the five spheres. These are the company, the work itself, the team, the wider network and society. In a short second section of the book, a simple checklist for each of the spheres is provided, which the reader can use in their own organisational environment.

Clearly, the company context is really important, for both the organisation and the individuals within it.

The author does a good job of identifying the factors that arise if the relationship between each party is strong enough for engagement to take place. One potential problem is something Gartner refers to as ‘the vortex of disinformation’, highlighting the fact that having a healthy and proactive approach to communication is critical in corporate life.

In the discussion of the second sphere – about the work that one does – Gartner brings us to the concept of purpose, and the link between organisational purpose, strategy and personal focus and performance.

There’s a useful reference to the platinum rule of treating people as they’d like to be treated; a well-worn customer service axiom which applies also to the treatment of the individuals that make up your workforce.

This links to the third sphere – that of team – wherein the author discusses the idea of humanising the work experience, because this strengthens the culture of small groups: the concept of humanisation includes a sense of belonging, the existence of basic courtesy and a focus on people as the key unit of importance.

Bringing a sense of engagement into a larger organisational context, a common purpose, a set of shared values and an understanding of the desired culture (‘a learned and shared set of rules, roles and behaviours’) are all critical.  Gartner sees the main challenge to this being the ability to share these criteria and socialise them in a way that appeals to the majority of the audience.

The link to the fifth engagement ‘lens’ – society – lies in the basic premise that the development of societal shared values relies on the existence of fairness and trust.

Organisations, like Society, have four conditions for survival, according to Gartner: a long-term perspective, fairness, protecting the environment and prioritising the many over the few.

The short second section contains checklists for each sphere: these are helpful, certainly, and yet they appear a little unsupported. I think more could have been made of them to provide a really comprehensive action-oriented conclusion.

In fact, I wonder whether this book goes far enough: it is wide-ranging, in the sense that it covers the bases of its subject authoritatively; it maybe does not push the boundaries in a way that might be expected from the introduction.

Also, I am not sure that it categorically links engagement with productivity gains, other than through other empirical work outlined early on  in the book; but, I’m maybe being picky!

It is certainly well-written and largely jargon-free and is an enjoyable read: one could quite manageably digest it in the course of a week’s commute. I like that it offers some useful examples and provides some simple checklists. It seems to have been written with commitment and an evident passion for the subject-matter.

H.G. Wells wrote in ‘The Time Machine’ that “We should strive to welcome change and challenges, because they are what help us grow. Without them we grow weak like the Eloi in comfort and security. We need to constantly be challenging ourselves in order to strengthen our character and increase our intelligence”. This quotation could, perhaps, apply to the development of employee engagement in the workplace.

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