Leadership: In Search of Employee Engagement

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The challenge to attract and maintain motivated employees is age-old.  To make talking about this topic easier, a 21st century catch phrase has become firmly rooted in our business lexicon: employee engagement.  Given big-business tendencies for slogans and buzzwords, let’s dig in a bit for the sake of clarity.

The term was first used often without specific definition, but “engagement” was generally understood as a proxy for employees’ overall level of caring & concern for their work or employer, and broadly dealing with matters of morale, commitment, satisfaction or productivity.  Tracked carefully by corporate leaders via employee surveys, as scores dipped plans were quickly made in response to introduce more “fun” into the workplace via team-building or social events.

Clarity was provided more recently when the Towers Watson organization published their 2012 Global Workforce Study.  They introduced a sharper definition: “the willingness and ability for employees to go the extra mile.”  While that does bring clarity, it now seems a bit too narrow.  In most organizations there are plenty of employees who don’t even regularly complete their first mile, much less an extra one.

For past or present students of workplace motivational theory, it’s hard not to notice that fresh lipstick has been applied to concepts that have stood the test of time.  Not surprisingly, what was old is now new again.

Here are the major factors in the Towers study that influence employee engagement.  Listed in random order, the importance of each can change with the times.  Included are additional links to a few selected articles for those who want more detail or techniques for improvement:

Security, both professional and financial:  this has become even more important due to the business conditions of recent years, as 50% want to stay with their current employer until retirement.  This also parallels the need for “Safety” as introduced in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, from his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation.”

Trust: this speaks to employees’ willingness to believe in the capability of their leaders, as well as their organizations’ policies, procedures and culture.  A helpful model for workplace trust is offered by Susanne Jacobs, a British researcher who published in 2012.

Relationships, both with managers and co-workers:  Most of us understand the need for a sense of community at work, but the manager/employee relationship often goes lacking.  That is problematic, as an employee’s relationship with his or her manager can be the #1 reason for a decision to leave, which clearly is when engagement hits zero (no survey needed).  Here are ideas for being a likeable leader, the starting point for any healthy relationship.

Stress: more than day-to-day anxiety, this also includes concern for the future (over-lapping with security).  Motivation theory says that some stress is good to increase productivity, but too much is not.  Here are The Top 5 Stress Busting Tips.

Career Opportunity:  the ability to contribute and advance within an employee’s existing company, as well as career advancement.  In this Society for Human Resource Management engagement survey (2012) their findings were slightly different than Towers’.  “Opportunities to use skills and abilities” edged out job security as the number one factor for employee engagement.

Each component of engagement is highly inter-connected and when combined can cause a bit of overwhelm.  Perhaps there is a need after all for a buzzword to abbreviate the vastness of the topic!

The reasonable takeaway for the harried manager is – as with so many things – to keep it simple.   But not to the point of ignorance.  Engage in practices of employee engagement; make time for the people management part of your role, as Towers Watson finds that 51% of us evidently do not.  Pick an area you feel can be improved and focus on one aspect of engagement at a time.  What can you do to address areas of concern?  Make engagement a standing topic for leadership meetings.  Ask your managers for help and use this list as an inventory for discussion.

Know too that responsibility for engagement is shared with your employees.  Even if after doing most things correctly, we are still not guaranteed a highly engaged team.  But the chances are much better that they will be.