In the previous article on leadership, we focused on culture changes and the necessity of good leadership to initiate and complete the change process. Changing an organization’s culture is not achieved by edict but by the sound leadership practices of casting a vision, modeling the way, and strong communications. We also described how today’s young workers, especially millennials, seek more than a steady paycheck; they seek challenge, growth, and fulfillment. Employers often bemoan what they perceive as a lack of work ethic and loyalty in workers without recognizing the changes in societal culture and the expectations of young workers.
Employers can meet the needs of workers and achieve significant benefits in productivity, quality, innovation, turnover, and customer satisfaction by increasing employee engagement. Yet a 2015 study from Gallup shows only 31% of employees are “engaged” while 51% are “disengaged”. Even more concerning, 18% of employees are “actively disengaged”. You might get an idea of where your organization would rank in such a study by answering these questions:
- Are your employees viewed as assets or liabilities, i.e., are they valued or tolerated?
- Are they viewed as plug and play cogs in the production process or as real, thinking, responsibility-taking assets?
- Do you assume that people don’t want to work or are you looking for ways to help them in their desire to be more productive?
How do we go about changing our organization’s climate from one of disengagement to one of employee engagement? First, we need to understand that this climate change is more than hanging a few posters on the bulletin board or mouthing the words without commitment. A half-hearted attempt or a simple window-dressing is quickly seen as manipulation and lack of integrity. Such fake maneuvers can easily exacerbate any problems of morale or disengagement. So the very first step is often a clear commitment to move from one model of interaction with employees to another.
Communication is an essential element of employee engagement and here we must include two-way and personal interaction. One of the enemies of employee engagement is anonymity; people desire to be known. Employers or managers at some level must know their workers and understand their lives. We must be able to celebrate with them their triumphs and assist them through their challenges. And we must communicate with them the facts of the business. Employers with strong engagement climates treat all employees as if they are owners. Since we are asking them to be as loyal and committed to the success of the business as an owner, they need to clearly know the business and understand its opportunities and challenges.
A natural extension of communication is that an organization must care about its human assets. Communication can identify challenges and concerns, but an engaged employee must know that they are valued and that the organization is making reasonable efforts to enable their workers to be productive and grow. The engaged organization is seeking opportunities to alleviate circumstances that can distract an employee and is seeking opportunities to improve their lives, both on and off the job.
Another enemy of engagement is irrelevancy, and therefore employees need clarity in understanding at least two levels of relevancy – their own and the organization’s. At the individual level, the importance of their contribution to others in the organization must be clearly and consistently demonstrated. This might include the internal customer for their step in some process, but in a broader view it might include how their role assists a supervisor in assuring the entire process is functioning. In the bigger picture, employees should be able to clearly see how the organization contributes to the success of its customers and to society.
Measurement and feedback are also important factors in employee engagement. In this instance, we are not talking about annual reviews or daily production quotas. Employees want to gauge their progress and their individual level of contribution. They want to know that they are making a difference and that they are growing. They need frequent personal measures of performance and progress. These measures might be as simple as a count of quality parts produced in a day or the number of satisfied customers served.
An organization that has a strong climate of employee engagement is based on trust and commitment. This sort of environment appeals to basic human needs and is often the environment experienced in every part of a person’s life except in the workplace. Moving to this sort of workplace climate often means passing responsibility to people who need some training and development. Of course, there will sometimes be a person who sees this type of environment as an opportunity to abuse the situation, which means organizations may need to improve their hiring process and may need to part company with those unable to accept a new level of trust and responsibility.
Research shows the benefits of employee engagement to be the empowerment and improved job satisfaction of employees, directly leading to higher productivity, better quality, and lower turnover. All of these attributes culminate in a stronger and more profitable organization.
Often organizations believe that improving employee engagement is a difficult and expensive effort. Our next article in this leadership series will present a case study that shows how simple it can be to develop a climate of employee engagement.
Ken is a business strategy consultant and leadership coach. His passion is helping companies and people grow and succeed. With an engineering degree and an MBA, he spent more than 20 years working in M&A and business development in the corporate world before founding New Horizon Partners, Inc. in 2002. His consulting practice works with a wide variety of industrial companies, helping them make good decisions about where and how to compete and building their leadership capabilities. To read other articles by Ken on business strategy and leadership, visit the New Horizon Partners website.