Employee Engagement: a Losing Battle?

by | Jun 21, 2016

The words “Employee Engagement” are often used, but the term is not always fully understood. A review of literature produces a deceptively simple employee engagement definition: “Emotional and intellectual commitment to the organization.” But how does one build this commitment and how important is it? According to a Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report published in 2013, the degree of importance managers attribute to engagement correlates with their positions. In other words, top managers generally consider engagement to be very important while middle managers are less convinced.

Gallup analyst Dr. Jim Harter says that employee engagement impacts directly on a company’s bottom line. Improved retention of trained staff, less absenteeism and enhanced productivity are among the advantages of high levels of employee engagement. He pegs the difference employee engagement makes at 22% greater profitability for companies.

How is the US doing in terms of Engagement?

Business analyst Jack Welch says that staff engagement is one of the methods he uses to judge organizational health along with cash flow and customer satisfaction – given that it’s such a key metric, what are US workforce engagement statistics like?

Following the publication of Gallup’s engagement survey in 2013, fostering engagement began to receive renewed attention from managers. But by 2014, engagement had only risen from 29.6% in 2013 to 31.5%. Most employees, it seems, are not engaged in their work. They’re just doing it because it’s a job. At management level, engagement hovers at 38.4% – still not an encouraging figure. In addition, some industries have lower than average levels of engagement, for example, the hospitality and transport sectors have notoriously low levels of employee engagement.

How can you gauge engagement?

One of your options is to enlist the help of analysts to find out what workforce engagement strategies would work for your company. Analyst Sean Graber says that surveys of employees cover six areas: the culture of the organization, what jobs employees do, what their career prospects are, how they feel about company leadership and management, and total employee rewards. Of course, work habits also matter. How much effort they put in, whether they have had opportunities for personal development, and how loyal they are to their companies also have to be taken into account. Other factors that impact on engagement include recreational opportunities, relationships and individual temperament.

However, not all organizations opt for a report such as this, but they can still get a relatively clear picture of where they stand by asking themselves some pertinent questions. According to Welch these include:

  • Does my staff understand and believe in the organization’s mission?
  • Do they know what outcomes we are pursuing and what strategies we are implementing to get there?
  • Is there something in it for them?
  • Do I recognize achievements and celebrate their milestones with them?
  • Am I leading them in a way that makes them feel I’m on their side?
  • Do they know where they stand at all times?
  • Do they feel free to share their opinions and ideas and ask questions?

These questions cover the so-called “drivers of engagement” which have been listed in the Harvard Business Review as being:

  • Performance-based recognition.
  • Understanding how roles contribute to strategy.
  • Updating and communicating strategy frequently.
  • Communication of business goals.
  • Aligning individual goals with organizational goals.
  • Aligning performance measurement and reviews with organizational goals.
  • Rewards linked to goal achievement.
  • Training and development opportunities targeting goal achievement.

You can also look out for negative indicators that show a need for greater engagement. For example, high levels of staff turnover and high absenteeism are a bad sign, as is low productivity.

What would employee engagement initiatives consist of?

The first step towards improving work engagement is determining just why engagement is low. For that, you have to look to your organization’s leadership. From an employee perspective, a Hierarchy consisting of four dimensions of employee engagement was drawn up by Flemming and Asplund and published in the Gallup Business Journal (2007). This employee engagement model looks rather like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Management needs to answer the four questions it raises in a way that employees will find believable and trustworthy. Starting from the bottom of the pyramid, this is what employees need to know about their work in your organization:

  • What do I get? This could be as simple as being properly equipped for the job they have to do and knowing what’s expected of them.
  • What do I give? This encompasses recognition and the satisfaction of knowing they’re doing something they’re good at. It also includes the feeling that someone at work cares about them and their performance and the belief that the organization offers opportunities for development.
  • Do I belong? Feelings of belonging are fostered by creating an environment in which employees feel that their opinions are valued, and by the ability to identify with the organization’s mission. Working in a great team that’s committed to quality and having friends at work also matters.
  • How can we grow? At the peak of the pyramid is the desire for career development, learning and personal growth. Of course, in some positions, material advancement opportunities are few and far between, and managers would need to find other ways to give staff opportunities to progress.

Depending on your organization and your answers to the questions posed at the beginning of this section, you can begin to target the obstacles to employee engagement, developing employee engagement activities such as regular team meetings in which employees have an opportunity to air their views, make suggestions and report frequent issues.

If you already have good communication between managers and their staff, other measures could include training initiatives, incentives or taking a long, hard look at your performance appraisal system to judge how well it’s aligned with company goals. Providing recognition is one of the best ways to engage employees, and this ranges from the simple ‘Thank you’ for a job well done to providing team incentives such as a special meal out when a target is reached, and to ensuring that high performing employees are given opportunities for career advancement.

There’s no one-size-fits all approach for managers who wish to build employee engagement, the specific employee engagement strategy you adopt will depend on the circumstances of your specific organization, but the general principles outlined here should provide you with guidance.

What do employees really hate?

As we have seen, good communication is absolutely essential to organizations that want to improve workforce engagement. But it’s on this level that many companies fail to achieve their goal. A Harvard Business Review survey sheds light on the communication issues that really get your employees riled. If your organization is guilty of any of these, you may be sure it is impacting on your productivity and profitability:

  • 63% of employees say they don’t get recognition for their accomplishments. In a busy workplace, it’s all too easy to focus only on the things that aren’t going as well as they should. Are you providing recognition for achievements too?
  • 57% of employees feel they are not given sufficiently clear instructions. When giving a directive, ensure that you cover the “what, how, when, where and who” questions and ensure that employees know they can come to you if anything later seems unclear.
  • Interestingly, 52% of employees felt they didn’t have enough opportunities to mix with other workers. Look at ways in which formal and informal opportunities to make contact can be created.
  • 52% of employees felt that their superiors didn’t have time to talk to them. For a busy executive, this can be a difficult issue to overcome. Consider making special times to interact with your subordinates, and when possible, have an ‘open door’ policy.
  • 51% of employees said that their bosses refused point blank to talk to them. Ensure that managers and supervisors understand that staff concerns are important. If there isn’t time for discussion when a team member approaches them, they should prioritize meeting with them as soon as possible afterwards.
  • 47% of workers said that others took credit for their ideas at work. Give credit where credit is due. If it’s a team effort, the team deserves recognition for its role too.
  • 39% said they didn’t get constructive criticism. There’s nothing worse than approaching your appraisal with high hopes, only to find that you should have been doing things differently for the last quarter. Alternatively, getting criticized without being shown how to produce satisfactory results isn’t helpful.
  • 36% said that what annoyed them most was managers who didn’t bother to learn their names. That’s a high number of bosses who are calling people ‘Ummmm… you’ if they could be bothered to speak to them at all!
  • 34% said that managers refused to speak to them on the phone or in person. It’s understandable that an employee in this position would think: “If you don’t care about me, I don’t care about you either!” It’s not a great way to get workforce engagement
  • 23% said that they were angered by employers’ lack of interest in their lives outside of work. Of course, one shouldn’t be nosy, but there’s nothing wrong with asking about your employee’s families or hobbies and actually appearing interested in what they have to say.

Having read this, we might be tempted to assume that it’s all doom and gloom and nobody’s getting employee engagement right, but that’s by no means the case.

Tried and true employee engagement strategy

Google is among the companies that employees rank most highly as a satisfying organizational employer. What’s its secret to success? Recent research commissioned by Google found that “5 key dynamics” are behind successful teams:

  • Psychological security: employees feel safe to expose their human vulnerabilities in form of one another.
  • Dependability: work is performed to a high standard and is always completed on time.
  • Structure and clarity: everybody in the team understands their roles and responsibilities, has clear goals to work towards and a plan to help them achieve these goals.
  • Meaning: the work has personal importance to those performing it.
  • Impact: employees understand why their role is important and what its positive impact will be.

You may be wondering how you can persuade people that their work really has meaning and impact, but that’s just what accounting firm KPMG did. It looked at ways that its work made the world a better place and communicated this to its employees. Accounting? Making the world a better place? Certainly! The firm could point towards the contributions it had made to promoting democracy, combatting terrorism and helping farmers. The campaign resulted in a significant increase in employee engagement.

5 steps towards employee engagement

It would be easy to get bogged down when developing employee engagement ideas for your organization, but now that we have a clearer answer to the question “How does employee engagement work?” we can target our interventions in five vital areas. Excessive complexity will water down your efforts and promoting workforce engagement, so these five areas will help to provide focus points to work around.

1. Make work meaningful. Enriched jobs that allow for greater autonomy and decision-making authority coupled with support from management make employees more engaged and productive. Recruitment of people who are a “good fit” is the first step. Helping people to see how their work contributes to the wellbeing of the organization is the second, creating opportunities to break away from routine is a third. For example, Costco circulates employees through a range of tasks from building displays to packing shelves and working as cashiers.

2. Build a great leadership team. That means goal setting, teaching managers how to be great coaches and developing their leadership skills. Performance appraisals and goal setting that is linked to company goals play an important role. In addition, managers should receive recognition for their leadership skills as well as ‘hard’ figures such as production or sales targets.

3. Create a flexible, people-friendly workplace. Being flexible to employee’s personal needs and providing a supportive workplace shows workers you care – and they are likely to reciprocate. People have complex lives, and may need time off to care for children or just care for themselves. Providing opportunities for fun and time to spend with family helps to reduce burnout and fosters engagement. Good manners and fairness also count. Say “Thanks” when thanks are due and watch out for insidious forms of discrimination.

4. Opportunities for growth. There’s a limit to how much you can promote people, but it is possible to provide other opportunities for personal growth such as trying out something new, and providing training opportunities to develop skills. DeLoitte University Press cites a study that found that organizations with a culture of learning were more likely to come up with new ideas and were more than 50% more productive.

5. Vision purpose and transparency in leadership. It all begins with a clear mission, but employees also want to know how their company is doing. That means reporting the bad news as well as the good news. If an employee doesn’t get a pay rise this year, they’re likely to be angry, but if they understand that it hasn’t been a good year and are given a means of helping to turn that around, they’ll want to help. Companies with high engagement have top executives who regularly meet with their staff and who play “open cards” with them, even when the going gets tough. It also means investing in people and providing inspiration. When employees feel that what they’re working towards is something worth achieving, they become personally invested, “engaged” in their work.

Fostering engagement builds stronger organizations

Employee engagement results in happier staff. They have job satisfaction and they see the organization as being on their side. That in itself may not be worth investing in – but the results of having an engaged workforce: greater productivity, higher profits, better customer service and retention of talent mean that having a happy satisfied workforce I an investment in the current and future success of any organization. As Gallup concludes: “Employee engagement drives growth”.

Share This