Let's get engaged!

In the United States not only is 20 March the spring equinox (a time when night and day are of equal length), it is also National Proposal Day, a day to get engaged. Inspired by the date, I thought it was timely to revisit employee engagement and factors that enable it.

Whilst employee engagement does not happen at a single moment in time, like a marriage proposal it concerns commitment. Simply put employee engagement is about the personal attachment and loyalty an employee feels for the organisation it works for.

When employees are engaged with their work, they are more fulfilled and more motivated to give of their best (1). This has been found to have a knock on effect on output with research finding organisations with high engagement reporting greater productivity (2).

Whilst employee engagement does not happen at a single moment in time, like a marriage proposal it concerns commitment.

Measures of engagement

Employee engagement just like all human relationships comes down to satisfying needs. How well this is achieved is measured using staff surveys that asks questions to determine how well employee cognitive, emotional and psychological needs are being met. An example being Gallup’s Q12 which uses just 12 questions (3).

The results are then subsequently presented using three classifications which correspond to the commitment, productivity and performance of an individual.

Actively Disengaged: These people are unhappy and may spread unhappiness in and outside the organisation. They are generally negative and point out issues, provoking and convincing others to leave.

Not Engaged: These folk are likely to represent the majority in an organisation. They put in the time and do the work but not necessarily with any energy or enthusiasm. They may be either positive or negative in their outlook and opinion about the organisation.

Engaged: These people are passionate, bringing solutions to problems and so move a business forward. They feel a strong connection to the organisation and its objectives and are willingly go the extra mile. These employees are positive in their outlook and champion the workplace.

Interestingly the characteristics of strong employee engagement happen to be the opposite of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism and inefficiency.

Why does it matter?

Central to understanding employee engagement is the recognition that whilst an organisation is a set of systems and procedures, it is individuals who perform the activities within these processes.

It follows then that the success or otherwise of an organisation can be determined by the percentage of people in each of the three categories.

According to research, organisations with highly engaged workforces:

>outperform competitors by as much as 17% and there is a 52% difference in operating incomes against those with low engagement (4),

>are more innovative (5)

>record lower sickness absence

>have lower staff turnover, and

>evidence high employee advocacy (1).

When a flower doesn't bloom, you fix the environment in which is grows, not the flower (Alexander Dan Heijer)

4 Enablers of Engagement

A study undertaken for UK Government, Engaging for Success by David Macleod and Nita Clarke found four factors that organisations demonstrating high engagement share (4). These are considered enablers of engagement, each of which reinforces the others.

It also holds immediate supervisors and managers, as they have the greatest influence over those in their teams, responsible for driving or draining engagement.

1. Strategic narrative

Simple – specific - inspirational

This element is concerned with an organisation’s purpose. Understanding the why and how of an organisation provides meaning and connects people to each other and the organisation. Fulfilling a very basic human need, belonging.

Without a narrative that they can buy into, employees will not necessarily be willing to invest themselves nor stay.

According to Macleod and Clarke, an organisation’s purpose should be simple, specific and inspirational.

Singularity of Purpose

A man came across three masons who were working at chipping chunks of granite from large blocks. The first seemed unhappy at his job, chipping away and frequently looking at his watch. When the man asked what it was that he was doing, the first mason responded, rather curtly, “I’m hammering this stupid rock, and I can’t wait ’til 5 when I can go home. (Actively Disengaged)

A second mason, seemingly more interested in his work, was hammering diligently and when asked what it was that he was doing, answered, “Well, I’m molding this block of rock so that it can be used with others to construct a wall. It’s not bad work, but I’ll sure be glad when it’s done.” (Not engaged)

”A third mason was hammering at his block fervently, taking time to stand back and admire his work. He chipped off small pieces until he was satisfied that it was the best he could do. When he was questioned about his work he stopped, gazed skyward and proudly proclaimed, “I…am building a cathedral!” (Engaged)

Three men, three different attitudes, all doing the same job. But one feels like he belongs. Simply having a sense of WHY has changed his perspective. He doesn’t think he is less than anyone else on the team, he is thus likely more productive, more loyal and more likely to stay on the job.

2.Engaging Managers

You get what you walk past

According to Gallup, managers account for 70% variance in employee engagement (6); they have the greatest influence over their teams so they naturally have a critical role to play in driving or draining engagement.

Everyone is an individual with differing human needs.

An engaging manager recognises this truth and spends time getting to know their people as individuals so that they can motivate them in fulfilling their potential in the best way. They are likely to coach and mentor team members rather than command and control them.

Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don't want to (Richard Branson)

3. Employee Voice

Seen – enabled – heard

Employee voice exists where everyone feels able to have a say, share their views and offer ideas. This is not just about employee surveys or Town Halls but also whether people feel heard and how others respond to their words.

As Google recently found with Project Aristotle, the most engaged and effective teams are psychologically safe ones (7). People feel comfortable asking questions, discussing ideas, admitting mistakes and giving feedback without fear of repercussion, rejection or ridicule.

Without an open and inclusive culture there is little chance of engagement and a high likelihood of conformity and submissiveness. There is also little chance of innovation, creativity or growth.

An unsafe environment causes participants to share fewer ideas and to carefully filter the ideas they do share to be sure they are safe (Steve Smith)

4. Organisational Integrity

Mind the gap

Trust is a cornerstone in any relationship and as such cannot be taken for granted. It is also far easier and takes less time to lose it than to rebuild it. When senior management recognises this fact, it consciously acts to build and maintain it.

A way of doing this is ensuring that everyone, especially leaders and managers, walk the talk; they do what they say they will and are seen to act in accordance with stated organisational values.

Every leader casts a shadow, so be aware of the fact that people will do what you do (David Novak)

Where to start?

According to Engaging for Success all four elements influence employee engagement. This can make knowing where to start difficult. But as each interacts and reinforces the others, it doesn't really matter which you start with. However, a good place to begin is building a Shared Narrative.

This is not just because it is an easier task but because a sense of connection is a basic human psychological need. According to Maslow, once our physiological and safety needs are sufficiently met (food, water, safety, security), we seek to meet our social need: a sense of belonging.

In the workplace, this means after our needs for safety and security are met (with a wage and contract), we look for connection.

Understanding the mission of the business makes work activities personally meaningful. This gives us a sense of purpose which in turn creates a feeling of commitment, as well as uniting everyone (no matter their role) to a common goal.

Consider the apocryphal janitor who, when JFK asked what he was doing, answered; “Mr President, I’m helping put a man on the moon”? He was engaged, he had connected his role with NASA’s mission.

Last words

As economies become progressively knowledge-based and talent in some sectors scarce, it will be an organisation’s people and how they are treated that will matter most.

It will matter to the organisation, it will matter to those that work there but it will also matter to the increasingly socially responsible buyer.

This means employee engagement, motivating and helping people to be and do their best, should be a key element of any business strategy.

Given that there are only four enablers to focus on this is not difficult but it does require an ongoing and active commitment. And there is no better time to start than ‘from this day forward’.

Further reading

1. Shanmuga Priya, I. & Vijayadurai, J. (2014) Employee Engagement in Organizations. European Journal of Business and Management Vol.6, No.34, 2014. [Accessed 10 March 2020]

2. Baldoni, J. (2013). Employee engagement does more than boost productivity. Harvard Business Review. [Accessed 10 March 2020]

3. Gallup Inc. (2016). Gallup Q12 engagement survey. [Accessed 10 March 2020]

4. MacLeod, David & Clarke, Nita (2009). Engaging for Success: enhancing performance through employee engagement. Available from Engage for Success. [Accessed 17 March 2020]

5. Krueger, J. & Killham, E. (2007) The Innovation Equation. Gallup Management Journal. [Accessed 10 March 2020]

6. Beck, Randall & Harter, Jim (2015) Managers account for 70% of variance in employee engagement. Gallup Management Journal. [Accessed 10 March 2020]

7. Google Inc. Guide: Understand team effectiveness. Re:work with Google. [Accessed 10 March 2020]