Employee Engagement Today

By Susan Wright, TCP President

We all read and talk about engagement but what does it really involve?  It is known by many names – flow, motivation, involvement, effort, satisfaction.  It is a business imperative, resulting in improvements in profitability, quality, productivity, revenue, customer satisfaction, innovation, and retention.  It has been defined countless ways, among my favourites the following from Lominger Ltd:

Employee engagement is a mind-set in which individuals take personal responsibility for the success of the organization and apply discretionary efforts aligned with its goals.

This definition highlights the twin criteria for engagement: both desire to contribute to the organization’s success and personal satisfaction in the work role.  Blessing & White in their 2008 study of engagement say engaged employees are “enthused and in gear, using their talents and discretionary effort to make a difference in their employer’s quest for sustainable business success.”   However, their research indicates that less than one-third (29%) of employees are fully engaged and 19% are actually disengaged.  This data was generated over a year ago.  What do you think these figures look like today?  How would your organization compare?  Where would you place yourself in terms of your own engagement?

In an economic downturn, there are particular challenges with employee engagement.  One is the level of uncertainty – how are employees to take personal responsibility for the success of the organization when that success seems so far removed from their control?  And what motivates employees to spend discretionary effort in their work if they’re not sure they will have a job tomorrow?  One of the must-haves for engagement is trust.  Consistency, clarity, predictability – these are the characteristics of a high trust environment.  How do we create that trust in turbulent times?

In virtually every study of engagement, results show that the key relationship is that between the manager and the team.  Managers define the job, represent the culture, set expectations, provide recognition and feedback. In other words, they build the basic trust relationship and through it, create consistency, clarity and predictability for team members. Managers don’t necessarily have the answers and can’t control the broader circumstances, but they can communicate openly and honestly and often, be clear about what they know and don’t know, and give employees as much control over their choices as possible. In other words, they can be Leader Coaches.

Never has there been a better time to be a Leader Coach for your team, your peers, your boss, your colleagues.  The foundation of Leader Coaching is Building Trust, making the appreciative connection with others in every interaction, listening and clarifying using Unconditional Positive Regard, showing up with personal authenticity and vulnerability.  As a Leader Coach, you are a role model for others – your own ability to deal with ambiguity will be mirrored by your team. It’s OK to be nervous; everybody is.  What’s not OK is cutting yourself off from others because you don’t have the answers, or taking your anxiety out on others.  As a Leader Coach, here are five things you can do right now to build trust and engagement in your workplace.

1. Have an individual meeting with each of your team members to find out how they’re feeling, what they need to know, and how you can coach them about their engagement.  Use the three stages in the Leader Coach process for these conversations.

2. Do an assessment of your own level of engagement at the moment.  How personally responsible do you feel about the success of your organization?  How much discretionary effort are you bringing to your work?  What kind of an engagement role model are you for your staff?  If you’re not fully engaged, what is one thing you could do?  For example, who do you trust that you might you get some coaching from to develop an action plan?

3. At your next team meeting, engage your team in their own engagement.  Use an open space or dialogue or world café approach to get your team talking about engagement and creating a list of actions that you can work on together.

4. As Catherine the Great said, “Praise loudly; criticize softly.”  Everyone wants to know what they’re doing well and to be recognized for their efforts. Tough times are an opportunity to dial up the praise, recognize discretionary effort, show compassion and caring.  Take every opportunity to celebrate, and get senior management involved whenever appropriate.

5. Encourage peer coaching.  Peers are powerful coaches for each other – they provide buffers from stress and uncertainty, and create bonds that support both individuals in performing, learning and changing.  Be a matchmaker to help peers connect and support each other.

The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.

George Bernard Shaw