Correcting the Grammar of Employee Engagement

Lewis Garrad

Managing Director Asia Pacific

When you talk about Employee Engagement, are you using the word “Engagement” as an adjective or a verb? Perhaps you’ll say that you use it as both at the same time? This might seem like a facetious question but it’s important. When we use the term interchangeably we underestimate the fundamental differences between the two definitions, which influences how we respond to our problems and challenges.

Engagement as a verb (e.g. “That was an engaging presentation”) is about capturing attention. If you’re focused on engagement as a verb, you’re probably thinking about the way that you communicate with people and the sort of interventions that you use to get employees involved in business activities and decisions. These things are important on their own but it’s clear that as a verb Engagement is about focusing attention. It’s about aligning people on the priorities of the organization and involving them. That could be the topic of an entirely different article.

In contrast, Engagement as adjective is a way to describe what employees are (e.g. “She is an engaged employee”). Engaged employees bring energy to the workplace. They are ambassadors for the company, they are dedicated to its success and want to participate in growth. They are focused on their work and drive productivity. Academic and research definitions of engagement are strongly tied to these concepts – measuring things like absorption in work, vigor at work (high energy) and “flow” (a state of deep concentration).

So what? Well, although they might seem similar, engaging employees (verb) to create engaged employees (adjective) doesn’t always work. This is why researchers have found that our preoccupation with charismatic leadership over the last 20 years was somewhat misguided.  Although a charismatic leader might be extremely entertaining to be around and great at engaging people (verb) on the surface, the day-to-day experience of working with someone like that is rarely as motivating. They are less likely to have engaged (adjective) employees.

Getting engagement right is about five things:

1.  Understanding that leaders, managers and organization culture all play a role in Employee Engagement. Employees need to find meaning in their work to be engaged and look to senior leaders to provide context and meaning. Local level line leaders have a role of creating engaging day-to-day experiences but often top leadership needs to intervene on systemic issues that are holding people back.

2.  Creating a sense of shared future. Employee life-cycle analysis shows us that a person’s priorities (not their needs) change as he or she moves through life and work. This means that the sort of practices and policies you use to build a compelling career for someone in his/her 20s often need to be different for the same person 5 or 10 years later. Some companies have stopped trying to create detailed long-term career paths for employees and focus on 3-5 year blocks (a tour of duty). Conversations then focus on what the employee wants to do after that tour, be it inside or outside the company. Where this happens, it often creates powerful conversations between employees, managers and HR partners who not only get better insights into how employees think and feel, but also become better prepared for potential changes.

3.  Putting good people managers into people management jobs. Research shows that leaders who are emotionally intelligent and prudent create more motivated and engaged teams. Leaders who are selected or at least coached to understand how their personality really influences the people who work for them tend to have a better shot at creating engaged workplaces with highly motivated people.

4.  Using your charismatic and creative leaders for what they are good at. That means challenging the status quo and driving change. Entrepreneurial leaders grow businesses and create opportunities. These people are important for helping to develop a compelling vision and bringing it to life for employees and the external world. They are essential for helping to generate inspiring stories that help to create meaningful work.

5.  Appreciating individual difference. When we run analyses we find that somewhere in the region of 30% of Employee Engagement is related to the personality and background of the specific individual employee (yes that means that about 70% is in the hands of leaders, managers and HR). That’s not an insignificant number so it’s worth recognising that hiring for attitude and fit as well as skills and experience can help raise the motivation and commitment of the workforce.

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