By Mark Frein
Every decade seems to bring with it a new term for employee satisfaction. The term of the last 10 years is “engagement,” usually defined as an emotional commitment by an employee to put in extra effort. We don’t want employees to simply be satisfied – we want them to go over and above what is required.
A 2011 report by Blessing White Research rocked the human resources world when it uncovered the bad news about the state of employee engagement worldwide: 31 percent of employees are engaged, and 17 percent of employees are actively disengaged. Only actively engaged workers, according to the study, are both satisfied in their jobs and contribute highly to organizational performance. As the study remarks, “Engaged employees plan to stay for what they give, the disengaged stay for what they get.”
While an optimist may regard one out of three as a relatively decent percentage of engagement, the lesser quantity of actively disengaged employees probably offsets the engaged. It does not take many disgruntled employees to sour an entire workplace. Research by Hewitt, Gallup, McKinsey and others further demonstrates that highly engaged workforces outperform those that are not. Such research only validates common sense.
Our job as leaders in our organizations is twofold: How can we attract engaged workers, and how can we keep them engaged?
Winning the hearts and minds of workers begins before they even enter the door as a new employee. A company with a clear and well-articulated mission and strategy tends to attract mission-driven employees, the sort of people who probably start with a big tank of “readiness” for engagement. A company with a strong culture, defined and supported by well-conceived values, further differentiates between potential employees that seek engagement from their work and those that do not.
If a recruitment strategy rests solely on what employees get, an organization will probably “get” new ranks crowded with employees that are not likely to commit beyond immediate incentives. Highly engaged people – particularly those from younger generations – want to be part of something meaningful. We need to offer more than a paycheck. We need to offer a chance to be part of something important. Simple step #1: bring in engagement-ready workers by focusing recruitment efforts on the opportunities to contribute, to learn, and to make a difference.
Keeping the Tank Full
If we have recruited well, every new employee we bring into our company starts with a full tank of engagement potential. The tough job is keeping the tank from draining. Every employee will go through ups and downs of engagement. If we are lucky, 80 percent of employees will be engaged 80 percent of the time. Engaged employees know they have to work hard, and are willing to do it and make sacrifices. That is what makes them so valuable and so important to retain.
There are well-researched “engagement busters,” organizational mistakes that rapidly drain engagement tanks. A short list includes:
In common with all engagement-busters is they are a product of a poorly led organization. Good workers will stay committed to an organization, even through difficult times, when that organization is well led. Countless leaders through history have demonstrated this, and countless more will continue to do so. Poor leadership begets a culture of dysfunction and disengagement.
Many organizations try to refill the engagement “tanks” of workers through patchwork solutions; e.g., employee picnics, minor monetary gestures, or other seeming boosts to morale. In my career, I have both heard of and witnessed first-hand more disengagement stemming from Band-Aid engagement solutions applied to fix deeper cultural and leadership problems. There is nothing more disengaging than watching a leader everyone knows is ineffectual address the assembled masses and talk about morale.
We must accept that one of the most important roles of leaders is to create, foster, and sustain a culture of engagement. Leaders set strategy, manage resources, and execute plans. They also provide the “glue” that holds employees together and to the organization at large. They provide purpose, meaning, and vision – things that must be present for employees to be highly engaged.
Courageous organizations promote and reward leaders that really lead, and help them in their development. Courageous organizations also do not tolerate poor leadership and weed it out or address it. Simple step #2: Equip leaders with the skills, attitudes, and will to truly lead, not simply manage. Prioritize leadership across the organization, reward good leadership, address poor leadership and engagement will follow.
I chose the title of this article carefully. It is not “easy steps toward an engaged workforce” – there is no easy way to foster commitment, participation, pride, and satisfaction in an organization. To engage a workforce and keep it engaged, leaders within the organization must care about providing an environment in which people can take pride in their work, feel a sense of shared accomplishment and be continuously challenged to perform.
Dr. Mark Frein is a partner in The Refinery Leadership Partners, a company providing leadership and management development that makes a positive, strategic difference in organizations. Refinery Leadership Partners opened their North American office in Austin, in January 2012. www.refineryleadership.com
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