The lost art of engaging employees

What happens when we decouple work and sense of self? Our nation may be a great experiment on that topic just about now. Unemployment is over 10 percent (including underemployed), and of those with a job, 72 percent report that they are either not engaged or actively disengaged at work, according to Gallup. So it seems even when we’re working, it’s just not that fun.


First, let’s get something straight. No one hires employees to be disengaged. You hire star employees to come to work bursting with energy, firing on all cylinders. Still, for all the talk of meaning and purpose in our lives, many still phone it in as a means to a paycheck. And because employee discontent is not always perfectly obvious, nor are employees perfectly forthcoming, it’s a challenge to figure it out in time to protect corporate culture, productivity, and brand. And whereas grandma would say, “it all comes out in the wash,” today it all comes out on the Internet. And by that time, it’s really late in the game and what may have began as small strife turns into a public brawl.

It will not get better on its own. Bad attitude is pervasive and when the tide turns, morale drops and individuals stop thinking big picture goals and begin to focus on themselves and self preservation.

I hate negativity. They act like the company owes them. Their work ethic is pathetic. It’s a poor reflection of our company.

Are such employees hardwired this way? Is job dissatisfaction an innate characteristic, like height or hair color? No. In fact, data suggest that work environment has a much stronger influence over job engagement than personality. In the old nature vs. nurture debate, nurture—or work environment—wins.

What energizes a team and triggers engagement? In other words, where should an organization focus to maximize the number of committed loyalists and minimize, even convert, dissatisfied compromisers?

Throw money at it? Even after substantial pay raises engagement only briefly spikes. Pay does not drive engagement.

According to Survey of the American Workplace, a recent national survey by Insightlink of Palm Springs, Calif., employee engagement can be found by having at least 5 of 10 key indicators:

1. Make it fun.

Seven out of ten U.S. employees surveyed find their work enjoyable, while one in four are passionate. Easy ways to spread the joy amongst your team:

  • Provide clearly defined job descriptions. Lack of clarity and stated expectation removes the goal post. Without a delineation of goals, there’s no joy of knowing they’ve met or exceeded those goals. Conversely, a clear target means they can place their undivided energy into meeting those goals, and the personal gratification that lies therein.
  • Communicate company values. By understanding what drives the company culture, employees can unify on big picture goals, and ingratiate themselves with the common mission.
  • Encourage employees to be open-minded and flexible, as you are being inclusive. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut when you’re responsible for repetitive tasks day-in and day-out. Or maybe your team is uncomfortable with change. Don’t make change for the sake of change, but when you do, include your team, when possible, in the process.
  • Recognition is essential to job enjoyment. Help employees stand out by encouraging skills that set them apart.
  • Encourage teamwork. Being part of a team builds self-esteem and morale, give employees a sense of camaraderie.
  • Invest in your employees’ personal development. Feeling insecure leads to stress, but offering ways to improve their skills can help reduce anxiety, and garner loyalty.
2. Reciprocity

Match your commitment to employees with that that employees make to your organization. This is an area where U.S. organizations do not fare well—although six out of ten employees feel that they are committed to their employers, only half believe the organization is equally committed to them.

Do your employees feel that they are cogs in a wheel, easily replaced, or do you demonstrate that they are an integral part of your operation? Quite often, senior management will talk up the value of employees and claim that their contributions are essential but their actions—especially in difficult times—screams cogs.

Commitment is a two-way street. There are 4 Cs in the Insightlink model of employee engagement: commitment, communication, culture and compensation. The first of these, commitment, means that if employers want loyal employees, they need to be loyal employers.

Unfortunately, many view employees as free agents willing to jump ship for any better offer. Many employers long for the days when productive employees stuck around for their entire careers. Employees, on the other hand, believe that companies do not value loyalty and will sacrifice employees for the bottom line or as fall guy for management. Employees point to downsizing, rightsizing and re-engineering as evidence.

Clearly, there are employers who create appealing work environments, and are genuinely committed to helping employees stay, grow, and prosper as the organization succeeds. But it’s a minority of U.S. organizations.

An employer’s commitment is demonstrated by fairness, trust, and concern:

  • To foster fairness, pay competitive wages and benefits, create and implement policies in unbiased way, provide timely, accurate and meaningful performance appraisals, offer all employees opportunities for growth and promote those who are most qualified. It’s alarming that so many employees complain that their organization runs on favoritism.
  • To nurture loyalty and commitment, create an environment of trust. This means stamping out territorial disputes, ensuring that management does what they say they will do, protecting employee confidences, modeling the behavior you want others to display, letting employees have control over how they do their work, allowing them to make mistakes without fear of ridicule, explaining the reasons behind every major decision and honestly acting on employee recommendations.
  • Concern for employees. Be open and honest with employees. Train and develop managers in people skills as well as job skills. Be flexible when issues come up, provide job security and allow them a life outside work.
3. Communication

Effective communication is an important part of a well-run organization; it’s always a top indicator of workplace engagement.

Unfortunately, at least from the perspective of employees, this is an area most organizations do poorly. Only four in every 10 employees are satisfied with the level of communication where they work; extremely low for such a key driver of job satisfaction.

This includes messaging that is largely top down and one-way. Such messages tend to be sanitized, bland and non-committal summaries of recent events, often nothing but generalizations with no substance. Real information is protected as a state secret. The tone of such communications is cold and clinical, with little effort to assure people understand what is being said, and a lot of effort spent rationalizing failure or assigning blame. Does any of this sound familiar?

Successful communications operate differently. The goal is to share information, knowledge and understanding with those whose cooperation is required to achieve corporate goals. They engage in two-way communication, encourage and welcome feedback and react positively to hearing how employees feel and think.

Bad news is not hidden. Rather, problems are reported upward and addressed, and there is a genuine effort to match words with actions. In winning organizations, communication is regarded as an integral part of management. Employees trust and are often willing to put themselves out for the good of the organization. Many of their communications celebrate and sustain success.

4. Momentum

The Insightlink survey asked employees to what degree they felt that their organization was improving and moving in a positive direction. Organizational momentum is an important determinant of employee engagement. All things being equal, employees that they feel are moving forward are more likely engaged with their jobs than those working in an organization without a sense of momentum.

This is human nature. People like to associate with success. Interestingly, when employees are asked why or why not their organization is moving forward, they assign values based on their perceptions. That is, some see recent growth as a positive reinforcement, while others see growth as adding even more to their already-heavy workloads.

This is not something organizations can affect directly, but they might consider whether they are doing enough to promote achievement throughout the organization.

5. Reward and recognition

Nearly every employer blows recognition. Less than four-in-ten give employers high marks for reward and recognition.

Still, some employers understand the importance of awards and incentives that highlight, validate and value outstanding work. Such programs keep employees motivated and are effective methods of reinforcing corporate expectations and objectives. To this end, research suggests that formally recognizing between 5 percent and 8 percent of a workforce every week is the tipping point between a forgettable recognition program and one that becomes strategic to the organization. Effective programs include:

  • From an email-based thank you message that any employee can issue to another colleague up to and including high-value awards distributed by senior leadership
  • A peer-to-peer recognition program using prepaid gift cards. After an employee nominates a colleague for an award, an email notification is then sent to the appropriate manager for approval. Once approved, a prepaid card goes to the recipient. All awards must be for a specific action taken and nominators must explain how that action advances one of the organization’s strategic principles.
  • A great idea program where employees can win a high value prize (such as one-week, all-expense-paid trip for two) if they suggest a really innovative idea. Every 6 months, ideas are submitted, then judged based on their originality, potential impact on the organization and how readily they can be implemented.

A successful reward and recognition program includes senior management commitment, clearly defined goals, effective promotion with consistent communications, appropriate incentives and rewards based on employees’ wants, needs and demographics and keeping current with industry trends and applicable tax laws and regulations.

6. Advancement

Perceptions of career advancement opportunities are closely related to reward and recognition. Organizations with strong recognition programs acknowledge their employees’ efforts, while demonstrating an interest in their futures. Successful organizations understand the need to make strides in both of areas. In fact, 85 percent of organizations with a meaningful recognition program also provide employees with advancement opportunities.

U.S. companies on the whole, though, are not much better at career planning than they are at employee recognition.

Many employees want to grow and develop in their jobs. They want to learn new skills, take on more responsibility and ultimately move up the ranks in the organization. Formal career paths and training programs help employees feel they have a career rather than just a job. However, since all employees cannot (or may not want to) move up the hierarchy, this should not be an excuse for ignoring career planning. Rather, many advocate a combination of career enhancement and career advancement. Failure to address the need for advancement has a cost in terms of higher turnover. The number one reason employees leave voluntarily is to advance their careers.

7. Learning

Only half of all U.S. employees rate their employers highly in learning. Here’s how to help employees design personal development plans:

  • Establish plan purpose including the employee’s individual potential within their chosen sector, identifying what they are good at and interested in, taking account of the organizational realities and linking their plans to organizational needs as much as possible.
  • Summarize development needs through such means as self-assessment tests, benchmarking exercises against management standards or personal diagnostics which help employees better understand themselves in a structured way. Keep in mind that each employee’s development needs will differ depending on their career goals.
  • Identify learning opportunities, starting with the outcomes of assessment used and then encourage employees to create lists of the skills or knowledge they will need to acquire, update or improve and then realistically compare this list to their current skills and knowledge base. Identify the gaps.
  • Set development objectives for each learning gap identified. There must be an element of challenge in these objectives so they stretch your employees as individuals and carry them to new levels of learning but the objectives must also be attainable and viable within a realistic timeframe. When you help your employees set and achieve goals, they will feel more satisfied. Rather than just plodding through each day, they can look toward new challenges.
  • Make sure employees put plan into action, record the outcomes and evaluate their performance. Evaluation is critical to self-development because it enables employees to discover whether their development activity was worthwhile, applicable and if and how their skills or work improved.

Although employees should direct their own development plans, it is essential for organizations to encourage the use of such plans and ensure the necessary resources and support. Employees are unlikely to create such plans completely on their own, especially in the face of resistance from their immediate supervisor. Personal development plans should be an ongoing and iterative process rather than a one-time event.

8. Autonomy

Half of all employees agree that they have this level of control over their work. There’s mounting evidence that higher degrees of autonomy and control over work practices creates positive work environments. Autonomy is the ability to act according to one’s knowledge and judgment when deciding how to accomplish key tasks. Control means the ability to make decisions related to organizational policies and personnel issues affecting their workplace responsibilities. Importantly, both employee autonomy and control have been associated with improved organizational outcomes, meaning that their influence extends beyond higher levels of employee engagement.

  • Clarify expectations and the meaning of autonomy within the context of the work itself. Encourage employees to make decisions based on their experience and sound judgment. Reinforce these expectations by providing examples of such decision making during orientation and other situations where colleagues might benefit from shared experiences. Provide constructive feedback when individuals fail to take autonomous action that they otherwise should have taken.
  • Create a learning environment to build competence and confidence in your employees’ decision-making capabilities and this will, in turn, foster a greater sense of autonomy. In fact, the importance of this culture of learning cannot be stressed enough.
  • Encourage participative decision making, with the understanding that employees are accountable and have a role in determining policies and procedures that directly affect them. The main risk here is creating an organizational structure where employees are permitted to provide input into key decisions but the ultimate decision-making authority remains entirely with management. Ideally, employees should be able to make work and resource decisions without going through layers of bureaucracy that stifle innovation and implementation.
  • Enhance your employees’ comfort level by coaching them through early decision making and supporting both successful and unsuccessful decisions. This will build an environment open to autonomy and control.
9. Job fit

Believing that the job you are doing makes good use of your abilities and skills is among the top 10 drivers of employee engagement. This is one area U.S. organizations do well since seven-in-ten employees agree that they are doing the job they are trained to do.

The concept of fit is a familiar one; it is how well an individual’s characteristics (knowledge, skills, abilities and needs) match the requirements of the job.

Most people develop and use perceptions of job fit as they work their way through their professional careers. Job applicants choose between organizations on the basis of their perceived fit, recruiters make hiring decisions on the basis of their perceptions of applicants’ fit with the positions available and the degree of fit affect employees’ turnover. In fact, research indicates that perceptions of fit are better predictors of employees’ choices than the actual fit.

Those employees who are most suited to their work are also more likely to be committed and fully engaged at work. This high level of congruence between an individual’s characteristics and the surrounding environment gives rise to positive emotions, attitudes and behavior. These employees are less likely to leave their jobs due to discontent.

These findings have many practical implications for managers, since a poor fit between an individual and the job they are doing can contribute to lower levels of productivity and customer service and higher levels of absenteeism and turnover.

For individuals, achieving fit is a critical contributor to high job satisfaction, reducing job stress, improving work effectiveness and helping them enhance their personal growth. For organizations, job fit is essential for attracting and retaining talented employees, appropriately utilizing employee skills and efficiently achieving the best use of critical human resources.

10. Mission/vision/values

Six-in-ten employees agree that they are fulfilling their mission, vision and/or values, but organizations could do better.

Mission and vision statements provide purpose, promote shared values, establish behavioral standards and maintain employee focus on organizational strategy and direction. (Mission and vision often used interchangeably.)

  • Organizations should formulate a clear mission which is understood at all levels and is practiced throughout the organization.
  • When developing or refreshing your mission, involve layers within your organization, rather than relying solely on senior management. Research suggests that letting employees contribute at the development stage increases their commitment and belief in the outcome. When employees feel connected to a greater purpose, they are more motivated and morale is higher.
  • Measure how well management demonstrates their commitment to the mission. Build this evaluation into the process and reward structure.
  • Incorporate your mission, vision and your values into recruiting and hiring practices. It’s especially critical to both hire and evaluate performance based on your values because, by knowing who you are and where you are going, you’re more likely to hire the right people and manage them well.

A healthy work environment encourages employee satisfaction, engagement and energy toward collectively fulfilling the organization’s key objectives. A healthy work environment is not only a desirable workplace but should also provide the infrastructure to positively impact the effectiveness of the work itself. A healthy work environment should be invigorating, robust, flourishing and flexible enough adapt to change.

Author: Robert Gray is a data head at Insightlink headquarted in Palms Spring, Calif.