Contributed by Mark Stringer, Birkbeck, University of London

It was whilst visiting the exhibition of Gregory Crewdson’s Cathedral of the Pines recently, that the images began to resonate with me in terms of the sense of eeriness and alienation that surrounds the concept and uncritical acceptance of Employee Engagement in organizations. Employee Engagement is an organizational term that brings with it an almost zealous sense of “good”. A concept that works for both employee and employer. Both sides “win”.

“At last!” cry organizational leaders and their HR departments – a universal panacea for productivity, retention and loyalty. And it works! Look at the stats…

However, there is a sense of something not ringing true. What is being demanded from a worker’s unconscious in organisational efforts to increase employee engagement? The concept of employee engagement has become a focus within organizations as a construct to provide, at its basest terms, another avenue for the organization to extract more in terms of performance and loyalty (organizational demands) and for the worker to create a more meaningful and fulfilling work experience and environment (an employee’s desire).

So – the game may not be as equitable as we are led to believe.

In the first instance, there is no definitive, agreed upon definition of what Employee Engagement is – only a varied and (in the main) quantitatively based speculation picked up by consulting firms to make some more cash from organizations who they’ve convinced that Employee Engagement provides a neat, clean solution that will increase shareholder profit/turnover/ROI, ramp up efficiencies, and help them become more “flexible” in our post-Fordist, capitalist, realist, global environment. Employees who are risk averse and wary of job market instability realize that their only choice is to follow the ideology of “normcore”.

The use of language and narrative is key in the way in which organizations sell engagement as a win-win situation – but it is seemingly nothing more than smoke and mirrors. I suggest that there is indeed a dark side to employee engagement and that this is based in the neoliberal catch-all of ensuring that individualism is central and that the responsibility is therefore with the individual to “engage” in order to survive – and so what are the costs psychologically for the individual and the repercussions of this into society? Mental health issues, alienation, and a sense of loss pervading people’s lives – it is almost as if the romantic myth of becoming “engaged” is being utilised to pre-suppose a happy, continuous union.

My current PhD research uses Lacanian notions of Desire, Jouissance and Lack to interrogate, problematize, and begin to shed some light on this area of organizational life and to encourage a more ethical and balanced take on the concept. From a Lacanian point of view, we are not whole – the “mirror” is a false promise and the pain/pleasure ritual each of us undertakes to try and fulfil our desire is doomed to fail. In this way, we can view employee engagement as organizational attempts to tie together enjoyment and desire, positioning them both as organizational energies. Desire appears at the margin where demand is torn from need – and in that margin we want to ascertain the role of employee engagement.

If one takes a critical stance towards employee engagement, it becomes more obvious that there is a lacuna in the notion that higher engagement is a win-win situation.

 

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