Employee Engagement – the “great hoax” or a much needed perspective shift?
Organisations have spent billions cutting costs, re-engineering their processes and integrating their IT, but in the last 20 years, there has been a general realisation that success is completely dependent on people. Time, effort and money has been channelled into identifying how we might “leverage” this resource, not least into “employee engagement” and how we can evoke high performance and “discretionary effort” – study by Deloitte research outfit Bersin last year estimated the US engagement market at 1.5bn alone. However, there is a rising criticism that in the rush to find the answer, many organisations and consultants have just given the simple “job satisfaction” survey a facelift and are paying lip service to the more fundamental, humanist shift required in ways of working to really provide engaging working environments.
If one were to compare their organisations “climate survey” from the late 90’s with their current “engagement survey” in many cases there would be little difference, despite a large leap in our understanding of what it means to have engaged employees, and the conditions needed to foster that engagement. In addition, many companies circulate surveys each year, decide on one or two surface level actions that rarely get completed or communicated, and miss the opportunity to really look at current practices and evolve the ways which they do things and support their employees. This act of “paying lip service” is leading to a degree of scepticism about the whole concept of engagement. A Forbes article this summer – “the engagement racket – a hoax of immense proportions” – sums this perspective up and challenges that engagement is little more than “check a box, once a year, feedback exercise allowing a tone-deaf HR leader say to her leadership team, “Look how high our engagement scores are this year! Surely I’m doing my job!”.
However, if we take a step back and look at the compelling evidence of truly engaging organisations and academic research, there are important lessons to be learned. Evidence is pointing to engagement being a psychological state where people are dedicated to the organisation and their work, absorbed in their day to day activity, and have emotional, physical and mental vigour, or energy to apply to their work:
- A dedicated individual is strongly involved in their work, experiencing a sense of significance, enthusiasm, inspiration, pride and challenge.
- An employee with high vigour has high levels of energy and mental resilience while working, a willingness to invest effort in their work and persistence even in the face of difficulties.
- High absorption describes individuals fully concentrating and happily engrossed in their work, where time passes quickly and who often do not detach from their work easily.
This is different to the more commonly understood “job satisfaction”, as it implies a far more active, motivated state at work. Research and case studies show us this leads to happier, healthier employees, with far less cases of burnout, stress or well being issues, and significantly improved job performance. More and more research is also confirming that engaged employees have a direct impact on the bottom line – the recent “engage for success” research commissioned by the UK government produced a report called “nailing the evidence”, drawing upon academic research, data compiled by research houses such as Towers Watson, Kenexa, Hay, Aon Hewitt and Gallup and from case studies compiled by many leading companies and organisations they found a firm correlation between employee engagement and high organisational productivity and performance across all sectors of the economy.
So to the million dollar question, how do we increase employee engagement? Most research, organisations and consultants are focused on the types of things we can put in place in the organisation, and there is a plethora of books, tools and advice available – but we often forget that this is as much about the individual, and their day to day human needs, desires and experience as it is organisational structures, initiatives and process. The father of employee engagement, William Kahn, first identified three key psychological needs that must be met to help employees to feel more engaged: meaningfulness, safety and availability. If we are determined to truly shift levels of engagement in an organisation, we need to look at this deep human drives and find ways to provide an environment to meet them:
- Psychological meaningfulness: Employees often seek meaning or purpose in their work, from doing something that meets their own values, through to making a difference to others or society. They like to see a direct link between what they do, and that what they are contributing to, and be able to behave in ways that are most like themselves. Also, when people are treated with dignity, respect and valued for their contributions, they get a greater sense of meaningfulness. Environments that help individuals to build meaningfulness often include:
- Roles that provide challenge, autonomy and variety and clearly aligned to vision and mission
- A culture of constructive feedback, reward and recognition
- Have a close alignment to an individual’s own values and allow individuals to express their own personality, beliefs and values.
- Provide opportunity for development and personal growth
- Psychological safety: In order to invest themselves fully, employees need to trust they can show their true self and thoughts without fear of negative consequences and individuals more actively engage in organisations which foster trust and supportiveness between employees and their colleagues, line manager and the wider leadership of the company. Key aspects to creating this type of environment include:
- A supportive and transparent culture, group dynamics and colleague behaviour
- Strong sense of concern into employee wellbeing, and commitment to fairness and doing right by employees
- Strong transformational or authentic leadership, encouraging challenge and feedback and valuing employee opinion
- Job security
- Psychological availability: Employees need to feel they have the physical, emotional and mental resources available to commit themselves to work. Employees who are over worked, run down, tiered physically and mentally, and who are continually experiencing challenging emotional situations without resources or coping mechanism to deal with it, will be far from engaged. Work wellbeing is often treated as a tickbox exercise or “HR initiative” in organisations, but a healthy, fully available employee is vital for wider engagement and organisations need to focus on this. Key organisational attributes include:
- Providing the right volume of work for individuals (enough to stretch but not too much to exhaust), with clear and consistent expectations of their work
- Ensuring employees have the right tools, equipment and skills for the job
- Good work-life balance, with propoer time to disengage from work (see Daimlers recent decision to to delete email whilst people are on holiday!)
- Training and support to build up individuals “personal resources” such as resilience, optimism and self belief
Engagement is a worthy and important goal for organisations, in terms of both human, and bottom line impact, but research shows us it will take a more substantial perspective shift in most businesses than the minor tinkering in what currently goes by name of engagement.