“I like to keep it simple: an engaged employee feels great about their job and great about the organisation asking them to do their job.”

Tom Debenham

As company founder and managing director of People Insight, Tom has worked as an organisation development consultant since 1993. Tom saw the opportunity to combine technology with consultancy services, and formed People Insight to provide fluid platforms for organisation diagnosis, feedback and development.

An acknowledged expert on employee engagement trends and practices, Tom works with clients and the People Insight consultancy team to ensure that engagement interventions are appropriately targeted and result in real sustainable action.

We at the Engagement Zone sat down with Tom to gain an insight into how he sees the field of employee engagement and a bit about his involvement as the official partner in the 2016 UK Employee Engagement Awards.

EZ: What does employee engagement mean to you?

TOM: I’m not a fan of the academic and semantic debates on this topic. I like to keep it simple: an engaged employee feels great about their job and great about the organisation asking them to do their job.

EZ: What are your three tips to companies looking to drive engagement in their organisations?

TOM: Listen to your people. Do something meaningful in response. Maintain the conversation through varied informal channels so it it part of the culture.

EZ: What do you feel are the biggest pitfalls that companies should look to avoid when executing their engagement strategy?

TOM: Despite best intentions, organisations can get side-tracked into fixing the wrong things – often the ‘bottom scoring’ questions in their employee survey such as: pay and benefits or cross functional communication although they may have very little effect on improving engagement. 

What they should be doing is understanding which issues have the biggest impact on engagement in their particular organisation and focusing clear, people led actions there. We help organisations with this through analytics, and consultancy support.

In addition, there are now hundreds of products in the HR marketplace that claim to fix employee engagement – it can be a bewildering choice.

“Creativeness and evidence, no matter what the budget.”

EZ: Why do employees fail to buy in when companies try to ramp up engagement?

TOM: Our experience is they typically do not! But having said that, people can smell a rat a mile off. A colleague was asked by a client to summarise a large PLC survey results to their middle management team at an away day event. The CEO introduced the importance of engagement and handed over to said colleague before sitting back down and promptly falling asleep! People know when leaders authentically mean this stuff, it cannot be faked.

EZ: What skills are most useful for everyone to have when trying to move towards a culture of engagement?

TOM: Authenticity, and a healthy dose of humility is essential, particularly amongst senior leaders. Acknowledging frankly and plainly what’s wrong, and celebrating what’s right.

The most engaged organisations that we work with are often blessed with leaders who are always open to (sometimes harsh) feedback and know that they have things to learn and improve on – personally and collectively.

Additionally, the ability to really focus on what matters most, and trying and do a smaller number of things effectively. Keeping momentum going through organisational changes.

EZ: You’re a judge for the Employee Engagement awards. What will you be looking for in the entries?

TOM: Creativeness and evidence, no matter what the budget. That and a carefully concealed £5 note. 🙂

EZ: How important do you think it is to connect Employee Engagement to Customer Engagement and why?

TOM: We work with a lot of organisations in the retail and hospitality space, and love doing so because in this environment it is not only obviously the case that employee engagement drives service experience it is also evidently the case.

The relationship can easily be proved – we often do this with analytics. Not every sector has been able to generate data in the same way, but things are improving.

“Leadership Development, as if you get this right the other two will inevitably follow.”

EZ: What’s the best EE idea you’ve seen a company roll out/attempt and wish you’d had that idea yourself?

TOM: One of my favourites from a very high performing and highly engaged multinational, was the creation of cross-functional STOP teams.

Their job was to look within the organisation at the hundreds of policies, procedures, rituals and routines that had developed over time, and root out the ones that got in people’s way. They simplified back to those that were still relevant and valuable.

It’s a really simple idea: organisations are great at adding process and complexity, yet dreadful at taking it away. This was one, successful attempt at doing some of the latter.

EZ: What’s the worst and glad that you didn’t?

TOM: It would probably be the numerous tea-stained Employee Suggestion Boxes that sat in dusty corners of UK manufacturers in the 90’s and beyond.

EZ: Since you entered the world of work, what’s the best experience you’ve had?

TOM: I was involved in a bar company in London. We took on sad, run-down venues and turned them into something new. Nothing beats seeing new life breathed into an old space and the buzz of the team who made them throb with excitement.

EZ: What’s the worst?

TOM: Working on a seafood factory production line. The job was to put between 48-50 grams of prawns in a pot on a moving conveyor. That was all there was to it.

EZ: If you could only roll out only one programme, which of the following would you choose and why:

Wellbeing, Leadership Development or Recognition?

TOM: Trick question! Leadership Development, as if you get this right the other two will inevitably follow.

EZ: Which person (dead or alive) would you love to be able to come in and speak to your workforce/colleagues?

TOM: Father Christmas. That would be fun. He’d have a few stories about how he keeps his elves motivated, and what the culture is like up at the North Pole.

EZ: Favourite song to crank up after a tough day at work?

TOM: Josh Wink, Higher State of Consciousness (preferably in the middle of a sweaty run).

EZ: Best place in the world you have visited?

TOM: I’ll say Vietnam.

EZ: The place you’d most like to visit?

TOM: China looks interesting!

You can look forward to seeing Tom Debenham at our UK Employee Engagement Awards in January and also find People Insight at:


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