“Inter-” VS “Intra-” Employee Engagement

Paul Hebert Audacious Ideas, Culture, Employee Engagement, employee experience, Paul Hebert

I remember back in grade school when I learned the difference between “intra” and “inter.” For those that didn’t have Ms. Mangione for 3rd grade, the difference is this:

Intra: on the inside; within

Inter: existing between

I use the mnemonic of the Eisenhower “interstate” highway system which connected all the various states. Interstate meant that the highways went outside the states. An “intrastate” highway stayed within the boundaries of the state.

Class dismissed.

Come all without, come all within – You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Quinn.

The distinction between within and without became interesting to me the other day when talking with a potential podcast guest (plug – I do a horrible “Paul”cast on career advice on my personal blog.) My potential guest works in the education world—at a college—and we were talking employee engagement in the healthcare industry when I made the comment that engagement in fields like healthcare and in her field, education, should have pretty high engagement scores because typically these types of fields are tremendously connected to emotions and caring. You become a doctor or nurse to help people—to save lives. You become a teacher/educator to impact young lives and see people grow and become the best they can be. Those are highly personal and emotional connections. Those feelings should create a person who is highly engaged with their job, their vocation.

But the scores for healthcare and education follow a similar patter as other businesses. That seemed strange. And then it dawned on me that there can be a situation where one is HIGHLY connected and engaged with their function/job/ yet not engaged with the “institution” where they practice their vocation. You can love helping patients and hate your hospital. You can love teaching children and end up giving of your discretionary time and treasure but be wholly disconnected from the school, the Principal, and/or the entire system.

I don’t see a lot of discussion around that distinction.

Time for Innovation

I suggest we start to look at engagement like Miss Mangione wanted me to look at highway systems.

Intra-engagementTM is the measure of engagement related to the job I do. How much do I give to the function I perform and to the people/groups that benefit from my expertise and effort? Am I engaged in doing the right thing and working hard to support the work I love?

Inter-engagementTM is the measure of my relationship across borders so to speak. How engaged am I with other departments? Do I think HR is doing their job? Do I think Sales is staffed by a bunch of narcissistic, misogynistic cat-haters? Do I dislike the folks in Finance so much I wouldn’t walk across the street to spit on them if they were on fire?

I think these are distinctions with differences.

All of our engagement efforts would be much more effective if we made a distinction between inter/intra-engagement scores. The vast majority of current engagement measurement rolls the data that could be separate together, hiding some potentially interesting bits of insight.

Example: If someone has high intra-engagement scores but low inter-engagement scores I’m not going to spend time trying to fix the function but I will look at the ways that function interacts across department/divisional lines. If I see low Intra-engagement but high inter-engagement, then I can probably surmise I have a bad fit situation and know that it may not necessarily be a company culture problem.

How much of what we try to fix with culture interventions are simply bad fit issues? I’d save a ton of money on the gluten-free computers if I know it’s not a culture thing.

How much of what we consider poor employee performance is less about engagement with the function and more about having to work with dysfunctional teams in other departments.

I know I have been in positions where I loved what I did but hated the “environment” I did it in. We used to say “This would be a great job if it wasn’t for clients and sales people.” That is an inter-engagement problem.

Other jobs I hated what I did but I loved the company I was with. Loved the people, hated the process.

In either of those situations, the score on my engagement surveys may have been the same but the prime mover for the score wouldn’t have been.

I think we really need to know what is driving engagement—Intra or Inter.

Miss Mangione would have been proud to know that her lesson on inter/intra came to fruition almost 50 years later. Or not—I wasn’t one of her favorites.

What say you? Is there a distinction between inter/intra that’s worthy of dissection or is the rolled up score good enough?