“Help me get people engaged”.  “No one is engaged with health and safety”.  “Engagement around here is pretty low”.  Requests like this and their variations, is one of the most common things people come to me for help with.  Health and safety has an engagement problem, but it’s not limited to that. Gallup says only 36% of workers in the US are engaged at work.  And no one agrees on how we define engagement in any case.  What do we do?

Hey, it’s Andrew, and this is Safety on Tap. 

Since you’re listening in, you must be a leader wanting to grow yourself and drastically improve health and safety along the way.  Welcome to you, you’re in the right place.  If this is your first time listening in, thanks for joining us, and well done for trying something different to improve! And of course, welcome back to all of you wonderful regular listeners.

A short insight into engagement

There is a longer and more nuanced answer to this question of engagement, which is better suited to coaching over time than a short podcast. 

But….I’m only going to work with a small handful of you, and I don’t want to disappoint the rest of you.  So here are my brief thoughts on how you might start to think about and take action on this problem of engagement. 

In 1990 William Kahn came up with the idea of engagement and disengagement at work, as a way of bringing together some management theories about problems with workers.  Since then it’s absolutely taken off like a rocket, with an explosion of survey and reporting tools, engagement programs and offerings from management consultants, and more books than I care to count. 

There’s only one problem.  Depending on who you ask, you’ll discover it’s not a thing, or at least there’s plenty of disagreement about it.  Engagement is not a well-defined construct in the management literature which means if we don’t agree on what it is, we can’t easily determine if it exists, to distinguish it from what it’s not, and to work out how we can change levels of engagement based on changes we make or other variables such as the organisation, the industry, the economic climate, etc. 

That’s a problem for academics. 

Yet when we move from academic to practical, you will find a lot of validity in the concept. 

In my learning teams research, I was interviewing a very senior leader of a very large, multi-industry organisation managing a vast array of high-risk work every day.  Let’s call him Mike. 

Mike described it like this: we had problems on this project, performance was poor, people weren’t engaged.  It was obvious.  We set out to use learning teams as a way of solving the performance problems, and it turns out that it not only gave us the problem-solving results we were looking for, the workers and the project team became more engaged. 

Because we engaged with them”. 

Seems kinda obvious, right?

The answer to engagement is right in front of you

If you want to get technical, you can try and measure engagement but I caution most of you against that.  If you are really keen, you can instead measure a range of other more robust constructs, like psychological safety, trust, satisfaction, locus of control, and a multitude of other existing performance measures related to output, quality, customer satisfaction, and on and on. 

Or maybe it’s simpler than that. 

Let’s go back to my conversation with Mike.  We were talking about performance improvement, and how critical learning is to fuel that. 

The conversation flowed from learning to engagement, with these words: “Andrew, people aren’t ever going to be interested in learning, especially when management want to learn from them, at the frontline, if those people are not engaged at work”

I nodded in agreement, sensing the alignment in our respective experiences in creating effective operational learning (and lessons from when it hasn’t worked).  Nodding, but silent, I listened for Mike to continue, and then this came out of his mouth, ever so matter-of-factly. 

“Engagement seems to be a really complicated concept for some people.  For me, it’s not – if you want people to feel engaged, then engage them, get engaged with them”. 

And there was silence, as I let that hang in the air for a few moments, taking in the apparent contradiction between how simple, and yet how profound that insight was. 

Engagement begets engagement

Regular listeners will know how big a fan I am of pausing to understand the meaning of the words we use, so let’s think about what this might look like, based on the more common uses of the word engage and engagement.  

Engaged can mean two people who form a relationship, as in becoming betrothed to be married.  People who make a promise to another about the next step in a relationship.  The word comes from the 17th century French word engager, which translates “to pledge, or commit”. 

Relationships are meant to be hard work – the good with the bad, the high times with the low times, the love and care and support along with the frustration and the miscommunication.  Human history is a story of us working together, of relationships at the family level, the village level, and the community and country level. 

These days divorce rates are four times higher than a hundred years ago, the rate is only going down because fewer people to choosing to make a commitment in the form of marriage, families breaking up through parental separations, parent-child relationship quality much lower in stable family structures.  The majority of workers are still feeling like they are expendable parts in an organisational machine – 64% of workers are either not engaged or actively disengaged in their work and workplace. 

That’s the first common usage – engagement, as in a relationship based on effort and on making and keeping promises to one another.  

The next most common usage is engaged in a mechanical sense – engage the handbrake, engage the clutch, engage the gears in a gearbox.  This context makes me think of working together, where one part or person cannot do it all but it takes a diverse collection of them, designed to work together, to produce useful outcomes, like making 1000’s kilograms of a motor vehicle either stay in one place or to move really fast. 

Why we are actually talking about health and safety

How is all this coming together in your head as you listen?

If you want people to feel engaged, then engage them, get engaged with them. 

An intentional effort, to create relationships, make promises, and enmesh people together so when the cogs start turning, they all are working in concert to create energy, illumination, heat, and forward motion. 

And if you are thinking that engagement is not in your purview, that it’s someone else’s job, all I ask you to consider is this: what if an engagement was higher, do you think that health and safety might improve? What if you improved health and safety, by helping lift engagement? When you think like that, it becomes difficult to see how they are much different from each other at all. 

Thanks so much for listening.  Until next time, what’s the one thing you’ll do to take positive, effective, or rewarding action, to grow yourself, and drastically improve health and safety along the way?

Before you go, keep listening for a few words about the work which makes this podcast free for you.  Seeya!

You’ve probably heard me talk about learning teams, and might be wondering what’s that all about. Learning teams are an increasingly popular practical activity to help your organisation to learn better, in order to improve performance.

It’s not an investigation, it’s not a risk assessment, and it’s not a committee meeting – but a learning team approach can help to learn from the past, to anticipate the future, and to engage effectively with people all over your organisation or supply chain.

There’s not one way to do learning teams but some critical principles which will enable you to facilitate better learning whatever your situation.

I’ve created a few short videos which explain What is a learning team? If you’re interested visit

Here’s your FREE reflection worksheet from this episode.

And here’s your FREE download of the full transcript of this episode.

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