How does a lack of employee engagement impact the people who work at your organization? Consider Sally’s scenario:
When Sally arrives at work, she parks her car as far away from the office as possible. The few minutes it takes to walk to the office gives her time to collect herself after a good cry; on a good day metaphorical, on a bad day, very real. She knows: the work environment in her office drains her enthusiasm and is a source of major stress, affecting her entire life. So she needs a minute or two.
After years of being micro-managed, Sally has learned to simply do what is necessary to get through the day. Her learned helplessness is a conditioned response. Her coping mechanisms, she also understands, are made necessary by her current situation.
Sally falls into the wide majority of employees who are disengaged. At present, the oft-quoted statistic from Gallup places the number of disengaged employees at 67 percent. That means most employees’ have a work experience that is similar to Sally’s. Quality work becomes a rarity in these environments. Innovation becomes choked. Poor employee well-being drives up healthcare costs. As a result: the usual results associated with a negative work environment persist: high attrition, poor morale, increased recruiting costs, etc.
While employee engagement is an important influence on the work experience, too many companies – despite the thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars thrown at the problem – fail to make measurable improvements. The reasons for this vary widely, of course. Yet, there is a central misconception about engagement that sends too many leaders down the wrong path…
Reimagining Employee Engagement
Engagement encompasses two critical elements: acquisition of knowledge and a person’s emotional state. For an employee like Sally to feel engaged, she needs to believe she is growing her knowledge and understanding; she must also feel that she works in a positive environment. To improve engagement, leaders need to understand it’s an evolving psychological state, not a permanent state-of-mind as measured by Gallup and many others. Assuming engagement is a permanent outcome, and not a constant state of flux is where many leaders go astray.
Engagement encompasses to critical two elements: acquisition of knowledge and a person’s emotional state.
Researchers Wilmar Schaufeli and Arnold Bakker have studied engagement for over a decade. They explain the scope of engagement this way:
“[Employee Engagement] is not focused on any particular object, event, individual, or behavior.”
What’s useful about this explanation? As we reimagine employee engagement, it draws a leader’s attention to where they should focus their efforts. Again, returning to Schaufeli and Bakker, their research has identified three areas to focus: vigor, dedication, and also absorption.
Elements of Engagement
Vigor is the enthusiasm brought to the task; employee enthusiasm comes with high motivation for their work and also the mental resilience to overcome difficulties. Dedication is a result of meaningful work and pride. Finally, absorption is being happily engrossed in a task.
Bringing all three elements together – vigor, absorption, and dedication – is central to helping employees acquire the knowledge and understanding necessary to do great work. These three critical elements to engagement also contribute to an employees’ emotional wellbeing and a positive work environment.
Why does any of this matter? Here’s a list of compelling reasons:
- Engaged employees internalize the company’s goals
- The organization’s reputation attracts top talent
- Positively influences trust in management
- Engaged employees are often more collaborative
- Enhanced employee wellbeing
- Publicly traded companies see higher Earnings Per Share (EPS)
- Profitability increases
- More satisfied customers
Practical Employee Engagement Actions
Researchers and practitioners, like us, extol the value of an engaged workforce. Yet, many well-intentioned companies find it elusive. Some of this is due to the misconception that engagement is a permanent outcome that I mentioned earlier. But another prevalent, and just as incorrect, an assumption also exists: that improving engagement needs to be an organization-wide effort. In our experience, this is an expensive approach. As proven over and over again, even those executives with the best of intentions lose patience with modest improvements. The ROI, all too often, just doesn’t add up.
In our client work, we’ve seen rapid growth when leaders focus on what’s needed for their respective teams. They understand: it is a faulty approach to apply one-size fits all solution to an entire organization; the needs of each team vary. Conversely, when smaller, team leaders throughout a company make noticeable progress improving their employees’ engagement, it creates a forward momentum.
Contagious Pockets of Excellence
We refer to this as a “contagious pockets of excellence.”
We’ve learned: this is how even the largest, most entrenched, organizations initiate real change – and then turn engagement from a manipulative management tool to a mutually-beneficial condition in the work environment.
No, this is not always an easy task. For this approach to work, leaders can learn, both by looking at available data and by talking with their people, what their team needs to thrive. They can then use a combination of elements to positively influence vigor, absorption, and dedication.
How to Leverage Pockets of Excellence (And Improve the Employee Experience)
Here are factors we help leaders apply to create contagious pockets of excellence and improve their employees’ experience at work through engagement:
- Rather than take on the entire company culture all at once, focus on improving the workplace climate—what it feels like to work in that team
- Leverage employees’ strengths—assign work and assignments that energize and builds skills
- Learn what meaningful work looks like for each employee (and also each team)
- Create a sense of belonging among the team members and also the stakeholders
- Leverage purpose to develop employees’ understanding of their part in growing the company
- Cultivate a bone-deep sense of pride in the team in addition to the mission of the company
- Build high-quality connections with and also among employees
- Help employees develop wisdom loops: ongoing learning that creates experiences and forms knowledge that promotes growth
- Advocate for employee wellbeing and work recovery—giving them space to cognitively decompress from work when they get home
- Emphasize the team is more important than any one individual
Looking at this list and maybe thinking to yourself, “That’s too much to focus on.” You are probably right. After all, not all elements apply to every team. Your goal: determine which of these elements are of the highest value for your team, organization, and also your work environment.
The Employee Engagement Mindset
Employee engagement is not a strategy. It’s a relational mindset.
The focus, then, must be on partnering with employees and not “doing” engagement “to them.” Unfortunately, there are too many Sally’s (and Sam’s) in our workplaces. Our responsibility as leaders? To know what part of the work experience is most likely responsible for pushing the Sally’s of the workforce to disengage.
Don’t wait for a company-wide effort to improve the work environment. Be bold! Learn how you might also be contributing to the epidemic of disengagement. Just as important, start looking for solutions to the problems members of your team is contemplating on that short walk from their car to the front door.
Engagement doesn’t improve on an organization level overnight. So it’s up to each manager – and every leader – to be the first mover.
It’s up to you to create your own contagious pocket of excellence.