If You Want to Achieve Real Engagement, Think “Buy-In” Instead

Here’s a simple idea that can help you be more effective when it comes to dealing with (to invoke the sophisticated consulting term) all of this Employee Engagement stuff.  Even better, you can start using it right now, and it won’t cost you a cent.

  • When thinking about how to better come to grips with Employee Engagement, substitute the term “buy-in” for “engagement.” 

Why will that help?  Because there are two perfectly sensible but competing definitions of engagement. 

One definition of engagement connotes “connection” and “interaction.”  And if that’s the definition that’s top of mind when thinking about this topic, you will be naturally inclined to think thoughts like:  “I need to engage my team.”  Or:  “I need to make sure that members of my team are more fully engaged with each other.”

That’s a perfectly sensible use of the word, and those follow-on thoughts flow perfectly sensibly from it.  Problem is, it’s the wrong usage—or it’s the wrong usage if the reason that you’re trying to come to grips with Employee Engagement is that you heard about the research showing the correlation between engagement and better business performance.

Several of the posts below deal with the details of this “definition gap.”* So I’ll use the remainder of this Musing to address two points: 1) Why substituting “buy-in” can lead to better outcomes?; and 2) Why we didn’t just stick with buy-in in the first place?

Why thinking “buy-in” works better than thinking “engagement”? 

The definition of engagement used in the research is this:  The extent to which an individual is moved to invest additional effort and energy in the tasks at hand.  In other words, engagement is a psychological state in which an individual exists, not a set of actions that someone takes; as such, the energy/effort definition is very different from the interaction/connection definition.

One way to square this circle would be to think along these lines:

I want to achieve the kind of energy/effort Engagement that the research says will lead to better business results.  One interaction/connection Engagement technique that can be effective in achieving such energy/effort Engagement is to bring everybody together for an all-hands meeting.  Another interaction/connection technique designed to increase levels of energy/effort Engagement would be to include interaction/connection-intensive breakout sessions as part of that all-hands meeting. 

But while all of those references to interaction/connection and energy/effort in the preceding paragraph do parse, they are anything but clear.   And if it's tough to keep things straight while explicitly discussing this definition gap, imagine trying to keep those distinctions precise and clear in the push-and-pull of everyday organizational life.  See the problem?

Substituting buy-in for engagement, unsnarls a lot of those semantic knots:  We need a higher degree of buy-in to the tasks at hand.  An all-hands meeting—with breakouts—should help. See the difference?

What was wrong with “buy-in” in the first place?  Why didn’t we just keep using it? 

I can think of two explanations, one of which is benign, the other pretty cynical.

The benign explanation is that the researches that delved into the matter did what good researchers do: they began by clearly defining their terms.  As they proceeded to do their work, therefore, it was eminently clear to them just what they were studying:  The extent to which an individual invests additional energy and effort in the tasks at hand.  There was no ambiguity or possibility for confusion.

Once the results of their research began to be publicized and gain currency, though... well, let’s just say that that definitionally-precise horse was out of the barn.  This was not the fault of the researchers.  In fact, it wasn't anybody’s fault.  Rather, it was just yet one more manifestation of Murphy’s Law: if ambiguity and confusion are possible, they will occur.

Now for the fun part—the cynical explanation.

  • Immutable Truth #1:  People will always be intrigued by the Next Big Thing.  It’s just human nature.
  • Immutable Truth #1-A:  Whenever a Next Big Thing begins to appear over the horizon, it will be closely followed by hordes of consultants to help in its implementation.  (Note: I write this after having spent the better part of the past 30 years working as a consultant.  In my defense, most of my consulting work was dedicated to the proposition that such pursuit of Next Big Things is folly.)

Which sales pitch do you think will promote more billable hours for consultants?

  • “Employee Engagement is the key that will unlock untold levels of improvement in productivity, profitability, efficiency, market share, and employee retention!


  • “Not for nuthin’, but it really is kinda sorta the same thing as buy-in.”

Enough said.


*For a fuller discussion of this "definition gap" and other related matters, click here for an excerpt from my new book.