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Employee engagement is a concept that most business leaders fully understand on paper, but how does it actually look like, feel like, sound like in the reality of the workplace?

At the Co-operative Retail Conference in early March 2017, Dr Unai Elorza of Mondragon University will present the results of a 8-year study into the links between employee engagement and higher productivity.

However, it’s Dr Elorza’s comments of what true employee engagement feels like that caught our attention.

“Employee engagement is like supporting a football team. One is feeling the team’s colours, always with the team, ready to make efforts for the overall good of the organisation, willing to sacrifice self-interests for the good of the organisation, feeling proud of being part of it and feeling owner of it.”

Employee engagement with passion

It’s a simple but effective analogy, since it encompasses both the practical ways employees engage within a business, as well as one element so often overlooked: passion. As anyone who has been nearly deafened by the roar of the crowd at a Real Madrid game, the Spanish are passionate about their football. They don’t just watch it, they feel it deeply, and perhaps more importantly, express it in a more joyous way than some more reserved British fans.

The link between engagement and enrichment

Dr Elorza’s research reveals a strong connection between engagement and enrichment of the working experience, which includes interaction with colleagues or clients. Again, perhaps it is this person to person interaction that defines the die-hard football fan from the sofa supporter. Watching a game from the stands, supporters inevitably interact with each other, even if the only thing they have in common with the people around them is the colour of their team scarf.

Perhaps, too, it’s the variety of live football that brings them back week after week, come rain or shine. Whilst the basic components of the game remain exactly the same, it is the ebb and flow of interaction on the pitch, the expectation and inevitable disappointments, that lift the experience from two groups of men (or women) running around on the grass to a contest of champions.

But, if every game was perfectly matched, and ended with the same result, nobody would come to watch. The same could apply to employees with fixed and unchanging jobs. Dr Elorza likens repetitive work with no variety to making the employee “the extension of a robot”.

“You do not develop professionally but accumulate a year of experience repeated 30 times rather than 30 years of experience. In these contexts there is no engagement.”

Fulfilling your promises

The actual delivery effective employee engagement can also lead to issues. As Dr Elorza says, there were instances where:

“Changes ended up hurting the enterprise because they lacked the determination needed and they generated expectations among employees that could not be met.”

It could be argued that the same occurs when a new manager is appointed to a football team. Expectation is high, they promise to turn the club around, send ii back up the league tables, get the silverware, etc. And then it doesn’t happen. The manager is promptly sacked, and a new manager brought in to turn the club around and who promises to…

Leicester City: singing for victory

However, sometimes a manager does deliver, big time. In a fascinating article, Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City football club describes how he turned the underdog team into champions in a single season. He describes how the passion of the Leicester City fans were crucial to the team’s success:

“Do the fans sing only when we have the ball? Oh, no, no, no. When we are under pressure, the fans understand our pain and they sing their hearts out. They understand the complexity of the game, and when the players are suffering. They are very, very close to us.”

Motivation, Italian style

With the fans firmly behind them, how did he motivate the team? It took time to discover the most effective motivation was – the promise of pizza:

“Before every game, I said, “Come on boys, come on. Clean sheet today.”

No clean sheet. I tried every motivation.

So finally, before the game against Crystal Palace, I said, “Come on boys, come on. I offer you a pizza if you get a clean sheet.”

Of course, my players made a clean sheet against Crystal Palace. One-nil.”

Sometimes, it’s all too easy to become engrossed in the mechanics of employee engagement to try and find the ideal communication channels, the right way to disseminate information, the most efficient way to receive feedback. While all this is important, perhaps as business leaders, we should just send out for pizza, and sing the company’s praises for no better reason that we are passionate about it.

Photo credit: Flickr page of JPAG (James Grundy)