How to improve employee engagement
— March 20th, 2019
It’s perfectly possible to make all the right noises about employee engagement; to go through the motions, yet utterly fail to impact people’s sense of commitment to the organization. Think of it as a recipe: using all the same ingredients, one chef can concoct a wonderful dish, whilst another creates something inedible.
Equally, having the right constituents for employee engagement will not necessarily guarantee success: those elements must be effectively deployed. So let’s look at how to ensure an organization maximizes the benefits of its employee engagement strategy.
Firstly, do not assume that employee engagement is easy to achieve. It isn’t. According to a Gallup Poll, it’s rare. In a 142-country study conducted by the company, it found that only 13 percent of employees worldwide are engaged at work.
This is the stark reality: the bulk of employees worldwide are not engaged. They lack motivation and are unlikely to put in the effort to meet organizational objectives. Worse, 24 percent, "are ‘actively disengaged,’ indicating they are unhappy and unproductive at work and liable to spread negativity to coworkers."
So how can organizations committed to employee engagement turn around these somber statistics?
Engagement that’s close to home
Real change happens locally when senior management sets expectations for the rest of the organization. Companies gain from engagement strategies when management mixes employee engagement into performance measures and lets managers work to those expectations.
All staff at all levels must have a sense of empowerment and feel empowered to make a difference in their immediate workplace. Management that works with staff to pinpoint obstructions to engagement and opportunities to implement positive change will inevitably enjoy greater levels of engagement.
Employees will be au fait with both organizational systems and the dynamics of their teams. So it makes sense that staff are best placed to maximize and achieve better performance, business innovation, and more engaging workplaces.
As Gordon Tredgold explains, “...management often spends months working on a strategy only to issue instructions, often with little communication (let alone involvement) and then they wonder why their initiatives failed.”
Actions must follow words
Quite simply, telling staff that you believe in, and want them to fully engage with the organization and their immediate colleagues, won’t work. Follow up fine words and intentions with actions and systems that demonstrate the reality of the claims. As Bill Fotsch and John Case put it, “Engagement flows from a management system, not from the often fleeting attention of well-meaning managers.”
Personal hopes and fears aren’t left at home
People are complicated. Life does not get switched off when a member of staff crosses the office threshold and sits at their desk. There are domestic relationships, family issues, kids and any number of non-work related concerns calling for attention within the work life of any employee. Organizations which recognize and embrace this reality will get better results from staff. Set clear expectations alongside support systems that can actually help when life outside of the workplace encroaches and affects performance or engagement, (or both).
As Janine Schindler suggests, staff can spend so much time at work that, “we can end up shorting ourselves on important interactions with family and friends, so it’s only natural that we crave real connections in our work environment.”
Having managers that recognize the role of motivation really matters
Who is it that implements engagement strategies? It doesn’t just happen. It will be a set of systems, processes, and practices which the organization seeks to embed into the daily life of the company. At a strategic level, this will be senior management and HR practitioners but it will inevitably fall to operational management to implement and apply these practices. Thus, it’s imperative that managers understand the importance of engagement to the overall performance of the organization and their own performance assessments.
Line managers are critical. As Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, bluntly puts it, “Without them, there is no engagement.” It’s a wake-up call to senior management to recognize that management at all levels needs to understand ‘why’ engagement is a critical part of their day-to-day role.
Don’t over-manage employee time
A call to have line managers that understand the intrinsic importance of an engaged workforce in achieving wider strategic goals is not to suggest that management thus needs to micro-manage every aspect of an employee’s day. This is likely the least effective way to engage staff.
As Mike Kappel sees it, staff who are told precisely what, when and how to do their jobs will have neither the time nor motivation to engage with the task. They'll "...be more like robots. Employees can’t be engaged if they don’t have freedom in how to do their jobs.”
Micromanaging is actively counterproductive. An organization recently found that micromanagement caused 68 percent of staff to say morale was reduced, with 55 percent stating it caused productivity to drop. As Mike Kappel adds, "Lost morale and productivity leads to actively disengaged workers".
Empowerment and engagement go hand-in-hand
Employees need to understand the organization’s expectations from the start. That speaks to onboarding and training strategies where the tone for the rest of an employee’s career will be set. Setting goals and giving clear objectives matter but greater engagement will flow from staff who, once set on the correct course, are given free rein to achieve those aims using their own initiative. They need to feel empowered.
A study found that just 4 percent of staff are willing to give extra effort when empowerment is low; those numbers rise to an impressive 67 percent when empowerment is high. As Joseph Folkman sees it, "The discretionary effort of employees... has a significant impact on productivity."
He adds, "...you get to work with a group of satisfied people who are willing to work hard. It’s the best of all outcomes. Who wouldn’t want to strive for this goal?"
Live it, breath it
The real takeaway is that employee engagement is more than a turn of phrase trotted out by management. It needs to be lip-service that is backed up by real action. It's a cliche but it’s accurate nonetheless… if you talk the talk you need to walk the walk. Employees need to hear what you’re saying and see it backed up by action.