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What Can Leaders do About Employee Engagement?

Wednesday, September 28, 2016
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It’s Monday morning and John and Sally are getting ready for work.

John is excited and can’t wait to get to work. After all, just last week his boss accepted his request to be involved in an upcoming project where he would get wider exposure and try his hand at project management (which he thinks he is good at). So, John is really looking forward to his new role and is eager to give his best.

Sally, on the other hand, is not so enthusiastic about going to work. It’s not that she doesn’t like her job. She does not have any complaints about her job as such, but the effort she puts in and the extra mile she goes to get things done is neither recognized nor appreciated. She’s started to feel that she is being taken for granted and no one really values her contribution. She has been quietly looking out for better opportunities.

According to Gallup, John is part of the minority; only 32 percent of U.S. workers are considered engaged in their jobs. Sally, on the other hand, is part of the 68 percent who are considered either not engaged or actively disengaged in their jobs.

What Does It Mean to Be Engaged?

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), in its 2016 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement report, defines engagement as “the actual conditions in the workplace (the environment and the work itself) and workers’ opinions and behaviors (how the employees perceive their relationship with their work, as well as how they view others around them relating to their work).”

In John’s case, he was able to ask for a new role, and was involved in the decision-making process. As a report by Institute of Employment Studies states, the ability to grow and take on new jobs makes employees feel valued, which is the strongest driver of engagement. Sally, on the other hand felt left out, ignored, and disengaged in the organization.

Is Engagement Really Important?

Yes, employee engagement is a big deal; it has a direct impact on business results. A SHRM report states that it is important for organizations to have engaged employees, because it results in higher productivity and reduced employee turnover. Additionally, Gallup's Q12 employee engagement assessment of 2012 found that companies with engaged workforces have higher earnings per share when compared with the competition. 

What Can Organizations Do About It?

Good employee engagement is rooted primarily in the vision and values of the organization. Does employee happiness or importance have a place in corporate values? Whom does the organization consider more important—customers or employees?

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However, having a set of lofty values is one thing; living them is another. If you want your employees to be engaged, you must ensure that the foundation is laid properly. Otherwise, employee engagement will be person-centric, not an organization-wide phenomenon.

In most cases, it is the top management who determines an organization’s values. That is all right to start with, but at least once a year, management should find out if employees: 

  • Know the organization’s values. 
  • Think the organization’s values are being practiced. 
  • Think other values are being practiced.

Such exercises will help employees own and act as custodians of these values, thus laying a solid foundation for employee engagement.
In the absence of proper values, there won’t be a healthy work environment. In fact, shared values is one of the key elements of McKinsey’s 7-S framework for organizational success. Another key component is style, which indicates the behavioral patterns of key individuals and the way they run the organization.

Once the ground work is done, you’ll need to train managers and leaders to help their subordinates feel engaged. It is not easy to train managers or leaders on employee engagement. It is a behavioral change, not something that can be done through a one-off training session. You have to create long-term programs that act as catalysts to develop a work culture and environment that is conducive to employee engagement and contentment. Here are some ideas.

Organize regular programs that reinforce company culture and values. Sharing organizational values is best done from the bottom up, involving as many employees as possible. You can use workshops, off-site activities, and team-building exercises to instill a sense of belonging and unity within the organization. Special days such as foundation day or family outing day are other occasions when organizational values can be reinforced. If your organization values loyalty or integrity, reward loyal employees and appreciate those who chose integrity over unethical business practices. Before a store opening, Wegmans Food Markets trains its full-time staff for six months and part-time staff for two months. That is not a common practice for a company of its size. But the company's core tenet is employee engagement, and because training and growth are the keys to success, it is willing to make the initial investment. 

Coach and mentor from the top down. Going back to the scenario from the beginning of this article, John was lucky to have a manager in whom he could confide his aspirations and benefit from his guidance. Sally was not so lucky. She has no one to look up to and was left to fend for herself. Line managers have a key role in ensuring that employees are involved and valued. So, the importance of coaching and mentoring cannot be stressed enough. For example, Zappos has a full-time, in-house coach to help employees with its Core Value 5, pursue growth and learning. The purpose of the program is to encourage employees to set and achieve realistic personal and professional goals. 

Involve employees in different task forces and quality circles. Employees are partners in progress for organizations, so it’s a good idea to involve them in decision making and create suggestion groups such as quality circles. Toyota is well known for its Creative Idea Suggestion System, which encourages lower-level management to come up with ideas that would foster efficiency and creativity, and share them without fear. Good ideas are rewarded, which motivates employees to think outside the box.  

Link individual goals with organizational goals. When employees understand how their contributions help achieve organizational goals, they are likely to be more motivated by and engaged in their jobs. Therefore, it is good to identify individual goals as a measure of organizational goals and use them during performance evaluations. It also gives employees a sense of shared responsibility. John Lewis, the well-known 150-year-old retail chain, calls its employees “partners.” As a part of the partnership, the company distributes a proportion of profits equally as a percentage of salary. 

Encourage employees to participate in community service. Another way of fostering employee bonding and commitment is by sharing and giving to the community at large. Many companies are encouraging their employees to volunteer and engage with local communities. They are including volunteerism, civic engagement, and social responsibility as a part of their organizational culture. Patrick Brandt, chairman and CEO of Zimbra, has said, "At its core, civic engagement creates bonds among employees, encourages a value-based company culture, and increases the overall morale of the organization." His organization provides paid time off to employees for charity work and voluntary projects.  

Conduct regular “happiness” studies to monitor employee engagement. Check with employees to see how they feel about their place of work. Happiness surveys allow organizations to take corrective measures in an early stage before things go out of hand. In an industry that normally faces high turnover, Hyatt has high employee retention, primarily because it routinely conducts satisfaction surveys to gauge how happy employees are at work. 

Employee engagement is very important, but cannot be achieved by classroom training alone. It needs a comprehensive approach that includes a wide range of activities. It is not something that can be achieved in the short term; you need to start the journey today.

About the Author

RK Prasad is the founder and CEO of CommLab India, a global e-learning company. He is responsible for formulating business strategy and ensures that his workforce focuses on the true purpose and values of the organization.

RK has 29 years of experience in corporate sales, training, university teaching, and e-learning. He has an MBA and is pursuing his PhD in technology-enhanced learning from Lancaster University. He is also a University Grants Commission–certified lecturer in management, an engaging speaker, and an effective trainer.

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