Best Practice

Common errors in employee engagement programs (and how to fix them)

Good intentions don’t always equal good results. A key goal most internal communication departments aim for is improving employee engagement.

Nearly two-thirds of IC professionals say they believe the department plays a key role in driving employee engagement. Yet Gallup’s 2017 State of the Global Workplace found that only 15% of employees feel invested or enthusiastic in their work. That suggests a clear disconnect between what IC is trying to accomplish, and the results they’re getting in most businesses. 

In a Poppulo webinar on employee experience management, Ananya Roy from Human Factors International was blunt in her response to the survey results. “It’s no surprise given the fundamental issues with the existing models of internal engagement,” she said. 

She outlined a couple of specific problems she commonly sees in employee engagement initiatives and talked about how IC can do better. 

Problem #1: Too many definitions of engagement

“Engagement” is one of those words that can be understood in a number of ways. In order to get the results you seek, you need to clarify what those results are and how to measure them. Roy points out that one of the big problems she sees is companies that lack one clear definition of engagement so everyone’s all on the same page.

“There are many and varied definitions of engagement, which are interpreted and actioned in equally diverse ways with widely differing claims of their ROI impact,” she says. When that happens, the result “is conceptual confusion and unclear strategic roadmaps.”

If different people in your company are using the same term, while meaning different things, you’ll struggle to craft a strategy that produces the results you’re all looking for. 

Solution: Redefine engagement

Roy’s suggestion is to take an entirely new look at how you define engagement. “A study by Robertson-Smith and Markwick points out that company-based models tend to see engagement as an outcome.” They see it as something employees do.

Instead, she suggests shifting your definition to see engagement as “a condition that produces outcomes.” What does that condition look like? It’s “a sense of ownership, dedication, and advocacy” that flows “from a psychological state of focus, absorption, and enthusiasm.”

Engagement is the attitude that produces behaviors that lead to the outcomes you seek. Employees that are engaged will be more invested in their work. They’ll be more productive, more creative, stick with the company for longer, and experience fewer conflicts. But while those behaviors may be your ultimate goal, your focus needs to be on creating the circumstances that lead to the attitude that creates all that. 

How do you do that? Roy lays out four things that create engaged employees: “job satisfaction, organizational commitment, job involvement, and feelings of empowerment.” Work on a strategy that creates those experiences for your employees and engagement will follow. 

Problem #2: Many engagement strategies aren’t truly employee focused

Roy brings up a question it’s important for IC professionals to ponder: who is your employee engagement strategy really about? If it’s about pleasing executives or managers, then it’s not serving its true purpose.

“Engagement has too often been reduced to HR surveys, slogans, and free lunches,” she explains. “Employees tend to see these as superficial and irrelevant. They see these as manager-driven, transactional, and a waste of time.”

If your employees aren’t getting anything out of your engagement initiatives, what are they even for? You can’t encourage the kind of dedication and enthusiasm that real engagement comes from using tools that don’t add any value to their lives. 

Solution: Craft strategies that focus on the employee experience

In order to create an employee engagement strategy that makes workers feel truly useful and fulfilled, you need to understand who they are and craft your strategy based on their concerns and priorities. 

“Scholarly readings insist that true engagement emerges from a two-way mutually beneficial relationship between the employer and the employee,” Roy says. What are you doing to make their experience of the job better?

Roy recommends a shift in your approach away from a focus on engagement, and toward a focus on the larger employee experience. To do that, start by learning everything you can about employees, what does their day-to-day work look like? What do they value most?

“For IC to be effective in aiding or guiding employee experience, it has to treat communications as a two-way stream,” she says. You can’t just focus on being heard, you have to also listen and learn.

Once you have a clear understanding of who your employees are and what matters to them, you can tailor your employee experience strategy to meet the actual needs of your workers. 

Improve the Employee Experience for Better IC

For your engagement initiatives to be successful, it pays to take the whole employee experience into consideration. Making the psychological shift from old definitions of engagement to a more experienced-based approach will help you center your employees in your efforts.

According to Roy, this shift “involves consistently re-examining the baseline of what matters from an employee point of view.” But by working to more effectively get inside the heads of the people you’re trying to reach and inspire, you can help employees begin to find more meaning in the work they do. 

“For the workplaces of the future, it will be important that people can clearly see the value of the work they do in terms that matter intimately or are set by them,” Roy insists. IC has a role to play in getting there, and the first step is learning to take an employee-centered approach to IC.

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