A “Non-Obvious” Conversation about Employee Engagement with Jamie Notter

A “Non-Obvious” Conversation about Employee Engagement with Jamie Notter 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

Today, I’m doing something a little different on the blog. My longtime friends Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant have just published a new book titled “The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement.” They present a unique perspective that I think you’ll find interesting.

What follows is a short interview I did with Jamie over email to give you a flavor of what’s in the book. My questions are in bold. The rest are Jamie’s words. More details about the book and how to find Jamie and Maddie are at the bottom of the post. Enjoy.


Your new book is about employee engagement. In my opinion, one of the foundation issues in most work on this topic is a lack of clear definition of employee engagement. As you also note in your book, there are nearly as many definitions of engagement as there are consultants and technology firms who claim to have the answer.

So, let’s start there. How do you define employee engagement? And what makes your definition more credible and valuable than the countless others out there?

Here’s our definition of engagement:

Employee engagement is the level of emotional connection and commitment employees have to an organization, which is driven by how successful they are at work, both personally and organizationally.

The first half of the definition is really our summary of all the other definitions out there. They all focus on the internal emotional connection/commitment. And that’s a huge problem because if that is what engagement is, then there’s nothing managers can do to improve it. That’s internal to the employee, so it’s not something I can get my hands on.

And that also defines engagement in terms of the result (level of commitment), but says NOTHING about the cause, and that’s where I think we are adding value here. The cause of engagement is fundamentally success. When people are deeply successful at work, then they have that level of commitment/connection. When you start messing with their success–THAT’s when they start to phone it in.

I’m not sure how clear we make it in the book, but we see three levels of success that will impact engagement–personal, role, and enterprise. The personal part is: am I being successful as I define it related to my life goals and destiny. This, by the way, is why I think entrepreneurs are 100% engaged–most of them were born to do it. They just can’t work for other people. So if you stick someone in a job that is not aligned with their values and life goals, they’ll be less engaged.

Role is about being successful in my specific job. If you put me in sales, but your org is so siloed that no one will give me leads, then I can’t be successful in sales and engagement drops. Enterprise is about my work actually contributing to the success of the organization. Imagine working for Kodak as they missed the digital camera revolution. I might be successful in my film processing, but I know it’s a sinking ship.

You align your organization with deep success like that, and you’ll get engagement.

Traditionally, engagement has been seen as the path to results (usually described as discretionary effort). The argument says that when engagement increases, employee output increases. In other words, more engagement leads to more success. Your definition seems to reverse the order making engagement an outcome. A cynic might argue then, why are we even talking about engagement if it’s simply a product of successful performance? I’m guessing there’s more to it than that. Can you explain?

Okay, so while I do think there is “more to it than that” (and I’ll explain in a minute), first I want to say that the cynic might have a point here. A lot of the literature on engagement cites statistics showing all the increased profits, revenue, and productivity that organizations get when they have higher engagement. They specifically imply that if you can somehow get more engagement, you’ll get those great results of profits, revenue, etc.

This really frustrates me, because I don’t think I’ve seen ANY proof of causation in those statistics–it’s simply correlation. Engagement and profits correlate. Fine. So what’s our mental model here? Is it (a) if we cajole people into being engaged, we’ll get more profit? Or (b) if we figure out how to be consistently profitable, people might actually like working here more? B honestly seems more sensible to me.

But, as you say, there’s more to it than that. Part of the bigger picture is what I said in the previous email–I think engagement is a function of DEEP success, which includes the enterprise level, but also role and personal levels. Creating a culture where everyone has success at all those levels goes way beyond simply being profitable. It’s about creating a system that is focused on those different levels of success simultaneously.

But most organizations, frankly, don’t have systems like that. They have cobbled together a culture that manages to generate some enterprise success (or they’d be out of business), but often at the expense of success at the other two levels. We finish the year in the black, but people are frustrated at the red-tape they have to go through just to get resources, or at the missed opportunities for innovation because one department won’t talk to the other.

Most companies today are focused on actions that increase engagement as a means to greater success. You argue for a different approach in the book. What do you believe organizations should do instead if they want to create a more engaging work experience for employees?  

If companies want engagement, then they should focus on finding and fixing the patterns inside their culture that are getting in the way of deep success. Get under the surface to find the patterns in the way you do things that are having the biggest impact on success, and then fix them (or reinforce them if it’s a positive impact).

Don’t just tell me whether or not your people think the organization is good at collaboration (which is what an engagement survey might say). Show me that while people as individuals are keen to help each other out in this culture, we haven’t invested in processes and systems to support the collaboration, so it ends up being ad hoc. And at the end of the year, we can always point back to a long list of missed opportunities to deliver value to the client because we weren’t proactively collaborating. And then suggest to me some new processes or technologies you can employ that will change that pattern.

You start doing that and engagement will increase–without you having to run ONE engagement survey.


For more great insights and practical guidance for how to manage your culture to fuel success and engagement, order a copy of the new book or visit his website.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.