Employee, member and even customer engagement, in theory, are wonderful for any business to focus on. But in reality, they’re practically useless – unless you’re aligning these with your organization’s purpose and strategy. The problem is that so many leaders have become so captivated by the need for engagement that they are forgetting to ask why it matters.

Proposal of marriage


Let’s back up a bit. Webster defines engagement as “emotional involvement or commitment.” While there is nothing wrong with that on the surface, there’s a lot wrong with it if people are emotionally involved or committed to the wrong things. Let’s look at a specific example:

Amith Nagarajan, CEO of Aptify (a leader in application software for enterprise-class associations, non-profits and other member-based organizations), recently told me about one person in an organization who had risen to a board position because of all the time and work they had contributed.

As Nagarajan was working with the organization to create a “Composite Engagement Score,” he was told that what the board member was working on must be important because he was a board member. But the company almost overlooked one very important point: what the board member was doing did not line up with the organization’s purpose or strategy. This is counterproductive, misplaced engagement.


Three Levels of Engagement

Nagarajan says what matters are behaviors and contributions in sync with key performance indicators and strategic goals. “You could almost call it an alignment score.”

Crossing the Secret of Happiness with Maslow’s hierarchy and Nagarajan’s ideas yields three levels of engagement: compliant, contributing and committed as described in our book, First-Time Leader:

Committed – At the highest level are the people trying to do “good for others.” They care about the organization’s purpose and teach others as part of their own self-actualization.

Contributing – One level up, contributors do things they are “good at.” They collaborate with others and help as they seek belonging and self-esteem.

Compliant – At the first level of engagement, compliant people “do no harm.” They show up. They observe. They focus on what’s “good for me” and meet the minimum requirements to satisfy their biological and physiological needs.

But at the other end of the engagement spectrum there is disengaged:

Disengaged – At the lowest level, those disengaged or engaged with the wrong things can hurt the organization. They don’t meet the minimum standards and distract others.


Implications for Leaders

Nagarajan and Aptify were doing fine focusing on the “how and what” of organization management software. Then, they realized they were dealing with all sorts of purpose-driven organizations without thinking about their own purpose, their “why.” They changed and committed to helping their clients achieve their missions. From there, it was a short hop to focusing on engagement and engagement scoring.

As Nagarajan and his team got into this, they realized that the world had changed for organizations. The Internet made joining, learning and connecting with others so easy that organizations needed to move up the value chain, curating and creating content. This led to them to the process of aligning their behaviors and efforts even more closely with their purpose and strategies. This is exactly what Aptify’s Composite Engagement Score measures.

Don’t follow this article off the cliff – of course, engagement matters. But it is only valuable if people are contributing and are committed to the behaviors and efforts that move the organization forward toward its purpose in line with its strategic choices. Engagement with the wrong behaviors and efforts is just plain counterproductive.

And oh, by the way, this is true for all organizations whether they are associations, non-profits, start-ups or part of the Fortune 100.

Follow this link for more examples from George Bradt’s New Leader’s Playbook.