On 18 May this year, David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom, (researchers, consultants and authors from the O.C. Tanner Institute), posed a number of interesting questions about two important issues for UK employers; employee engagement and employee experience. One of the problems concerning employee engagement, they argued, is the way employers “often overlook the perception of work through the employee’s eyes. As leaders, we’re all trying to manage employees into adopting our workplace culture instead of us adapting to theirs.” I was immediately struck by the lack of middle ground in this and, although this might not be the intention, the message seemed to be that an organisation’s ideas, culture, work, values and results should be a solely bottom-up concept.

They continue this theme by stating that the phrases, “employee engagement” and “employee experience” cannot be used interchangeably because the former is a completely top-down consideration while the latter is completely bottom-up. This does not have to be the case in my experience.  

The two-way employee engagement relationship is based on organisations fully informing their staff – particularly about the dilemmas they face when making decisions – and staff, in return, contributing their ideas based on a sound knowledge of the business with the skills required to present a business case rather than a wish-list. In Sturt and Nordstrom’s vision of the leadership adapting to employees’ workplace culture, an organisation’s ideas, culture, work, values and results would likely be based on an uniformed wish-list. In my view, that would only succeed in disengaging managers and staff alike. For managers, the disengagement would stem from being unable to grant the staff wishes and, for the staff, frustration would arise at management’s apparent lack of listening skills.    

Sturt and Nordstrum write, “employee engagement fanatics might argue that they’re trying to listen to the voices—the thoughts, ideas, desires, and emotions of their people too. And, we don’t disagree with that statement. But, herein lies the simple, but huge, difference between employee engagement and employee experience.” That difference, they state, is that “employee engagement asks the question, here’s what we did. How happy are you?” As a self-confessed employee engagement fanatic, I believe achieving a high level of employee engagement is based on a more complex analysis than asking people how happy they are.

The links between an informed employee voice and higher levels of employee engagement have been established since the MacLeod Report was published in 2009. Since then, this Bulletin has given many examples of sophisticated employee representative structures that are focussed on creating the informed employee voice to get the best ideas out of people. Yet, the tendency is still for organisations to react solely to the disengaged as if there is nothing to learn from those who seem to be enjoying their jobs and are able to put their own issues into the wider organisational perspective. Often a poor engagement score on an employee survey will generate a debate on why the 25% are disengaged rather than the equally important analysis of why 75% seem fine.

Three solutions are proposed in answer to the question posed in the Sturt and Nordstrom article, “how do you become an employee experience-focused company or leader?” These starting points are:

  1. “Pay attention to reality. Your culture (team or organization) is a product of the shared beliefs and values of your employees. Watch them. Listen to them. Try harder to understand them rather why they’re not engaging in the leadership’s idea of what the culture should be.”

In this reality, engagement is all about understanding “why they’re [employees are] not engaging”. In my view it is worth ensuring the already engaged remain engaged rather than becoming disengaged because that is the only way they can get their voices heard. It is as important to listen to engaged employees as it is to hear from the disengaged.

  1. “Let their path happen. If employees are sneaking through the back door but your policy suggests they enter through the front door, find out why, and change the policy. This is just an example, but you get the point. Our job is to look for their natural flow. Forcing employees into a culture that doesn’t work for them will definitely lead to disengagement. Of course, this doesn’t mean employees get to do whatever they want. It just means you’re being flexible enough to allow greater success.”

I agree that forcing employees into a culture that does not work for them is likely to lead to disengagement but, it is equally the case that an open and factual explanation of why “pathways” within that culture have to exist can reduce disengagement considerably. Whilst Sturt and Nordstom acknowledge that “of course, this doesn’t mean employees get to do whatever they want” they fail to highlight the importance to employee engagement of having confident line managers who are able to state their case and hold the difficult conversations. Many managers admit they struggle to convince some staff that they cannot “get to do whatever they want” – the disengaged are often the most unrealistic in their expectations.

  1. “Tell lots of stories. While it’s true that we’re huge fans of appreciation, we’re also huge fans of storytelling as a tool to fuel, shape, and transform culture.” Also, “encourage effort, reward results, and celebrate careers by telling grand stories about them, and their achievements.”

It is true that storytelling is powerful – in fact, the IPA bases much of its training around it – but the first building block to engaging employees is the organisation’s strategic narrative and that is what is often missing when organisations see engagement scores move in the wrong direction. Strategic narrative is important because it not only proves that decisions are not knee-jerk, it also given employees a clearer line of sight between the organisation’s strategy and what they do on a day to day basis. In turn, this helps employees to gain a greater perspective on issues that would otherwise eat away at them and start affecting their own performance. If employees are unaware of what is really going on and what makes their organisation tick, employee experience will continue to be a bad one and managers will be forever dealing with problems that are out of proportion to their actual impact.  


Derek Luckhurst is Training and Development Director at the IPA