Engaging Employees: Five Mistakes You’re Making (reprise)

Lewis Garrad

Managing Director Asia Pacific

Originally published in Talent Quarterly Article by Lewis Garrad & Patrick Hyland, Ph.D.
March 2016

Most people think of employee engagement as a relatively new concept but in truth it has appeared in academic literature for more than 25 years since William Kahn at Boston University coined the term in the early 90’s. In his first paper he wrote about the choice employees make at work; either to lean into their jobs and commit their full selves to their roles, or to lean away and to get by doing the minimum amount possible. The proposition for distinguishing between these states is clearly compelling.

Since then a huge amount of work has been generated in both the commercial and academic media to better understand employee engagement. The result has been a proliferation of programs in organizations aimed at enhancing engagement as a route to improved performance. However, the broad interest and multiple agendas of researchers and practitioners have also created a lot of confusion about what it really means to be engaged and how relevant it is to employee, team and organizational outcomes.

From studying employees for more than 40 years, surveying hundreds of thousands of people a year across many different organisations, Sirota has learnt a huge amount about what people want from work. Our problem is that we do not see a lot of that learning reflected in the approach that many organisations and managers take towards their employee engagement programs. The result is that many see limited impact and have become dissatisfied with the way they manage engagement. For example, in 2013, our survey of members from The Engagement Institute found that only 50% of organizations see managers really using feedback from employee engagement surveys to take action on issues that are raised.

So how can we use the last 25 years of work into engagement to learn how to create more effective organizations? In our recent article for Talent Quarterly, Patrick Hyland and I outlined five mistakes your leaders are making when it comes to engagement. Here is our reprise of those ideas for HR and Talent professionals.

Issue #1: Engagement is something that you’re doing to people.

It’s a widely held assumption that engagement is something that happens to people at work; as if an organisation can transmit engagement and motivation to people who work there. The problem with this is that it’s not consistent with what the data shows. First of all, the vast majority of people are naturally motivated to want to contribute their skills and knowledge to the endeavour they choose pursue. In fact, when we ask new employees from any company almost all of them (more than 90%) say that they are motivated to go above and beyond to help their organization succeed. The remaining 5-10% probably shouldn’t have been hired in the first place. Following the first 30 days motivation often diminishes very quickly and as many as 1 in 4 feel differently by the end of the first year. The challenge then is not raising the motivation of people in workplace, but rather to find a way to maintain the natural enthusiasm that people bring to work. Rather than trying to motivate them, we need to stop demotivating them.

This misconception carries into other areas too. For example, it is often assumed that managers who are exciting and fun are likely to be more engaging – projecting their energy onto employees. This just isn’t true over the long term and a really engaging leader (the one that supports the natural motivation of people) is someone that is focused on removing the barriers that employees have when getting their work done rather than being fun.

Issue #2: You’re chasing a number

There’s no doubt that the intuitive nature of Kahn’s original ideas about engagement are powerful. In our poll of human capital and human resources professionals, 90% of respondents said their senior leadership team recognizes the value of employee engagement and 79% said that senior leaders consider engagement to be a key driver of business performance. Basically it’s difficult to say that having engaged employees is a bad idea.

To capitalise on this senior level support, many organisations have set themselves engagement targets and goals, similar to the approach they would use for more or less any other business performance metric. While admirable, the result for many has been a narrow focus on improving employee attitude survey metrics rather than seeking to understand organisational challenges and act on them. This myopic view translates into a range of issues including employee engagement becoming more or less synonymous with a survey (when clearly it’s about much more than that) with managers actively encouraging employees to provide a more positive view than is realistic so that they can hit their KPI.

This is important because unless employees feel they can really contribute their true voice to the company, action and priorities will always be guided to the wrong areas. And remember, the effectiveness of those actions will (or maybe should) be the value from which your engagement program is judged.

The most effective programs take a much more holistic view of employee engagement and feedback. It’s used as a way to learn about how the entire employee experience is really happening while gaining assurance about the quality and consistency of people management practice.

Issue #3: You expect that more measurement will result in more change

It’s an age old management mantra: what gets measured gets managed. The transparency and accountability that can be established by clear and regular measurement is powerful and, again, this sort of thinking has been applied to many employee engagement programs. Often this is a positive thing with a regular cadence improving the familiarity that managers have with employee attitude data and allowing changes to be tracked more accurately.

As technology has improved and employees have become more familiar with living their lives online, organisations have increased the rate at which they gather feedback. Some even gather data several times a year, or allow managers to activate a survey “on-demand”. The idea is that more regular data collection and delivery will help to create a more fluid and actionable process.

Although it sounds good, having more regular data does not mean better insight or more change. Those concepts are just not causally related at all. Our recent research into this area has also shown us that some attitudes often used to measure engagement (like pride in the company) are very difficult to change in a short period, with individual employees rating them remarkably consistently over time, even when they change their mind about other things (like their boss). On top of that, managers, particularly ones that really need the feedback don’t take more interest because the data is more frequent. They just continue to ignore it.

The point is that increasing the frequency of measurement is rarely (but not never) the answer to an organisation’s challenges when it comes to engagement. It is really about helping people understand how surveys link to individual behaviour and performance so that leaders can figure out what to do with the results when they come. Any survey should therefore have a clear and well defined purpose.

Issue #4: You’re not doing the basics

Surveys aside, one of the reasons that so many organisations are interested in employee engagement is because they believe that having it will help them to be a more effective and better managed group of people. And although business context changes rapidly, the fundamental nature of people does not.  To that end, engagement practices need to reflect the needs that all people bring to work no matter who they are or what they do.

From an engagement perspective, most useful work in this area outlines three core fundamentals for human groups and organisations: hierarchies, representing a need to find and retain status; socialisation, representing our need to get along with others and to collaborate; ideology, representing our need to find meaning in what we do. At work these needs translate into the core of what people want from their job. First, they want to be respected and treated fairly no matter what their job is. Second, they want to work collaboratively with other people to get things done. Last they want to achieve something meaningful, to feel proud of their work and to feel recognised for their contribution. These things are true of all people no matter where they are from.

In practice, this means that engagement programs and interventions should have these fundamentals at their core. They should help to manage the natural tensions that people have at work: to get along and get ahead at the same time, while finding meaning and purpose in what they do.

Approaching engagement this way can be powerful because it’s helps to show us why managing engagement is such a difficult thing to do – it requires a leader to find a balance between competing needs; getting people to work together effectively while feeling that they have opportunities to advance their status through development and growth. Perhaps more importantly though, it requires leaders to establish a strong sense of meaning and purpose both at the organisational level (“here is why our organisation exists and why it is good for the world”) but also at the individual level (“here is why your job is important and why it has meaning and impact”). This is why leaders will always have such a critical role when it comes to engaging people and why both senior management and local management play a part.

Issue #5: You’re treating Engagement as an end in itself.

In a lot of the work we do, we rarely seen engagement acting alone to drive the sort of outcomes that organizations are looking for. When we run analyses looking at relationships between business outcomes and employee attitudes it’s usually a complex mix of factors that are related and it’s difficult to tell what is driving what.
Take innovation as one example. There is evidence to show that positive mind-sets help to facilitate creativity and support innovation initiatives. But innovation is complicated and new ideas always come with a risk of failure. Prudent and risk averse leaders will often favour compliance, consistency and reliability, avoiding the pitfalls associated with implementing new ideas. If engaged employees can only generate more innovation in organisation cultures that challenge the status-quo and actually drive implementation, then engagement alone will have very little impact on real innovation.

At the end of the day, myopic focus on any one measure or initiative will always be limiting. A combination of factors tailored to the sort results you are looking for is what really matters. Engagement programs succeed when they take a “performance first” mentality, aligning strongly with the strategy that the organisation is pursuing. This way, engagement becomes one component of a range of potential enablers of the overall strategy.

Final Thoughts

Engagement has become a wildly popular concept for HR in recent years. However, as we have outlined here, a lot of practice is still not aligned to what we have seen to be most effective. The preoccupation with running survey and reporting results has led to many organisations becoming distracted by the administrative aspects of engagement programs leaving leaders and managers to figure out what to do when the feedback arrives. If we really want to see engagement helping organisations to move the needle on performance, then we need to start with the end in mind. That means removing the barriers to the natural engagement that people bring to work, focusing on learning rather than measurement and getting the basics right. Most importantly, it means understanding that engagement is just part of a bigger picture that well designed employee research and surveys can help to paint.

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