This week’s worst Employee Engagement (EE) idea comes from employee benefits, a UK-based website, under the headline:  “EXCLUSIVE: Royal Bank of Scotland engages staff with its sustainability goals”.

Before diving in, let me be as clear as I can be about something.  What follows is a discussion of my concerns about what RBS is doing as an EE strategy.  I am not taking issue with RBS’ efforts at getting its employees to be more involved “with its sustainability and energy-efficiency goals as part of its corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy.” 

The article begins by saying that:

“(RBS’) environmental target framework focuses on one initiative each month to boost employee engagement with different environmental aims. Throughout February 2016 it is focusing on energy consumption through a campaign called ‘Turn it off’.”

A few lines further down, we read this: 

“RBS has communicated the campaign to employees, starting at board-level, via posters and stickers placed on electrical equipment in as many of the bank’s 2,500 buildings as possible. This includes creating an end-of-day checklist to ensure equipment is switched off.”

And we learn about one more EE-based tactic the company is employing to further its CSR goals:

“RBS has also partnered with eco-cup organisation Keep Cups to give all employees who have signed up to take part in its CSR policy a refillable and sustainable cup to keep and re-use.”

Now who could possibly take issue with such seemingly sensible and public-spirited steps?  Let’s start with a definition:  What is EE, properly understood?  And by “properly understood” I mean the kind of Employee Engagement referred to in all of the studies showing a strong correlation with better business results.  That kind of EE can be defined as “the extent to which people are moved to invest extra energy and effort on the tasks at hand.”  In other words, EE, properly understood, is a psychological state in which a person exists, not a list of things that a person does. 

As I’ve written before, if the word “engage” is used as a transitive verb—a verb that takes an object—it’s a sign that EE ain’t properly understood.  However virtuous the RBS’ leadership’s objectives might be, their tendency to try to “engage” their employees is misguided at best and arrogant at worst, i.e., it arrogates to them power that they simply do not have.  If you are my boss, you can’t “engage” me.  What you can do, and ought to be trying to do, is to create an environment in which I will be more likely to fully engage.  Note: I’m the one doing the engaging, not you.  That is a critical distinction--make that the critical distinction--to bear in mind if you really want to make progress when it comes to EE.

If, when handed their Keep Cups, RBS employees are genuinely thinking, “I feel deeply about sustainability and I’m excited to do my part by re-using this cup,” then they may well feel a higher level of engagement in the company's sustainability program.  But the employees’ deep feelings about sustainability preceded the gesture, they weren’t caused by it.

I suspect, though, that a non-trivial percentage of employees might be thinking something more along these lines: “Of course I’ll take a cup.  I’d have to be a moron not to.  This came from the Board of Directors!”  And if that’s the case, what you’ve got is compliance borne of self-preservation, not engagement.  To the extent that people feel pressure and/or resentment at feeling compelled to do something that they might not, in fact, have particularly deep feelings about, their engagement levels could even go down.

Engagement, properly understood, exists in a different dimension from such instrumental/mechanical strategies and tactics, one that’s orthogonal from the more quotidian aspects of organizational life.

I realize that’s a mouthful, conceptually speaking.  So in an attempt to clarify things a bit, let me borrow an analogy I recently ran across (the source of which I’m afraid I cannot find):  Asking “Will stickers and posters get people to engage?” is like asking “Is this line longer than this boulder is heavy?”  If that second formulation made your brain hurt, you’re beginning to sense the difference between posters-and-stickers engagement and Employee Engagement, properly understood.