What is employee engagement?
Employee engagement is the last of the four foundation stones of great leadership. But what do we mean by it? As usual, there are a multitude of intellectual definitions out there, but we are only concerned here with a simple and practical understanding that illustrates what it is and why it's so important to leaders and managers.
Put simply, employee engagement is a measure of the extent to which people have their hearts in the job and give of their best at work. So an 'engaged' colleague is one who feels good about coming to work and gives his or her best (or something close to it). A 'disengaged' colleague does not feel good about coming to work and an 'actively disengaged' colleague may indulge in negative or even destructive behaviour at work. Another way of expressing it is via the term 'discretionary effort'. Engaged people give their discretionary effort, disengaged people don't.
Why is this important? Because unsurprisingly the level of employee engagement is very closely related to the contribution or output of the person or people concerned.
Now, a good question to ask is 'what's the difference between employee engagement and motivation?'. The short answer is it depends upon who you ask, and if you plug that question into a search engine you will see what I mean. There is no simple definition that I am comfortable with repeating here. What I can say is that there are two relevant sections on this site, one talks about engagement and the other about motivation. But in the context of leadership and management, you had better understand both and be prepared to take action in the two camps! The reason I have separated them is because the actions that you take are rather different for the two subject areas, and that's because I prefer to talk about engagement as affecting a group of people at work; and motivation as being the preserve of the individual. I know that there will be plenty of academics who tell me this is not the case, but this site is all about giving you practical skills and simple tools that help you to become a better workplace leader and manager. So in the context of being a great workplace leader, engagement is the fourth cornerstone and I do mean it to refer to both engagement and motivation. So you need to worry about both!
Does employee engagement matter?
Yes. Research by well respected organisations consistently shows that organisations with high levels of engagement do much better than those without it. Put simply they make more money and/or deliver a better service. They have less staff turnover, less absenteeism, they attract more and better talent, their people are more flexible and open to change and they have happier customers or users. Great!
THE FOUR FOUNDATION STONES OF LEADERSHIP
'There are only three measurements that tell you nearly everything you need to know about your organization’s overall performance: employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and cash flow… It goes without saying that no company, small or large, can win over the long run without energized employees who believe in the mission and understand how to achieve it.'
Jack Welch, former CEO of GE
How are we doing on employee engagement?
Not very well it seems! Again, research by highly respected organisations across (literally) millions of workers in North America and Europe consistently shows that less that one third of workers rate themselves as being engaged at work. To put it another way, 70% of workers do not have their hearts in the job. Overlay this horrible statistic with the differing impacts that 'engaged' or 'disengaged' workers have on results and you immediately see the massive loss of performance and productivity that is going on. If that is not the responsibility of workplace leaders then I don't know what is.
Yes, but it's not like that in my organisation...
Hmmm. Europe's leading HR organisation did a piece of research that showed even when managers were confident that they were doing a sterling job in making sure their people were engaged, their people had a very different view. You need data, and that comes from an employee survey. More of that later.
How do we make sure employees are engaged?
As usual, there is no shortage of material out there on how to make sure that your people are engaged. But here are what I believe to be the best ways to ensure that your people overall have their hearts in the job. You are still going to have to address the motivation of the individual but that's covered in the section on Motivation. As you might expect, there are areas of overlap between employee engagement and individual motivation.
Having a clear, compelling and worthwhile vision or mission for your organisation will help people to feel that it is pursuing something meaningful.
Having a strong set of values or principles that everyone abides by creates a feeling of confidence in and respect for the organisation. But you must get your managers to lead by example! If you commit to a set of values then you must take action when someone fails to live up to them- whoever they are.
Give everyone a stake in the success of the undertaking to build a shared sense of ownership. Replace traditional 'management only' bonus schemes with a profit share or performance related scheme for all.
Being in the know
People give more when they feel a part of what is going on. A thorough and well understood communication policy should ensure a constant stream of news, information and updates.
As well as being kept informed about what's going on, people need to be heard. Create simple but thorough processes to ensure that leaders and managers talk to staff and hear what they are saying. Note and acknowledge feedback and then respond to it.
Help to break down barriers by having all staff spend a few hours in another section or department on a regular basis. Staff should slowly work their way around the organisation. They can discuss and present findings and feedback to their colleagues.
Help people to feel engaged by insisting that everyone is a knowledge worker and as such is expected to contribute ideas and effort to moving the organisation forward. Reflect this in regular performance update discussions. See the section on Performance Management for more details.
Think of ways to make work fun and stimulating, without devaluing the importance of the mission.
See the attached PDF for a worksheet that you can use to help you work on employee engagement.
'To win in the marketplace you must first win in the workplace.'
Doug Conant, former CEO,
Employee engagement worksheet
Employee engagement surveys
A great way to find out what people really think is to use a regular engagement survey. These can be done online or on paper, depending on whether your people have access to the internet. Given that just about everyone has access to a smartphone these days it's much easier to use this method and the tools out there will collate the results for you. Just put 'employee surveys' into your search engine and you will come up with plenty of options for surveys, some of them free! Here are some tips for making them successful:
1. Explain the process - people need to know why you are doing it, and what will happen to their feedback. You should explain that the results are a snapshot in time and will be used to help drive improvements that will benefit everyone within the organisation.
2. Keep it simple - I would suggest a maximum of 12 questions, with the survey taking no more that a few minutes to complete.
3. Do it regularly - it should become a simple and regular part of an employee's responsibilities. It is not a big deal!
4. Make sure the respondents are asked to input their department or function, so that you can measure employee engagement by those departments. In this way you can see which of your leaders and managers are doing well, and which ones need help.
5. Thank people for participating.
6. Share the results, discussing them with leaders, mangers and all employees. Condition the organisation to be prepared for some shocks, at least to start with.
7. Set out an action plan. This could be for the organisation overall and by department. The data itself is of no use unless you plan to do something with it. But don't try to do too much - better to identify a couple of critical actions to start with than to try and do everything.
8. Deliver the action plan. Your credibility will suffer badly if you don't follow through.