Understanding Employee Engagement - Business Results
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Understanding Employee Engagement

Understanding Employee Engagement

Employee engagement. A buzzword that many people like to throw around, but what is it really? Engagement is not a measure of employee happiness, though the two often go hand-in-hand. Rather, it is how emotionally committed your employees are to your company and its goals. It’s easy to see why the two can be confused – after all, happier employees are more likely to stick by their employers. This can also be seen in employee behavior. An engaged employee is going to put in more effort at work, due to their commitment and genuine concern for their work and how it contributes to the company’s bottom line. They go the extra mile, work longer and more efficiently, and take into account the opinions of clients. Why? Because they genuinely want to. On the other hand, a disengaged employee is there because they have to be. They are there to collect a check, and will put in the minimum effort required, and no more. Looking at them from the outside, again, it is understandable why someone may think a disengaged employee is just an unhappy one, chalk it up to a bad mood, and move on. But we can’t simply pass off disengaged employees as “that one cranky coworker,” and ignore the problem, because the benefits of having engaged employees are far too great.

When companies have engaged workers, they experience fewer of the expensive downsides that come with disgruntled employees. Turnover, shrinkage, absenteeism, product defects, and safety incidents all decrease, while customer satisfaction, productivity, and efficiency all increase. But the benefits don’t stop there – companies with a higher proportion of dedicated, engaged employees see higher profits and shareholder returns.

These benefits are great, but you can only experience them if your employees are engaged. So, what if they aren’t? Barely over half of companies have a strategy in place to tackle issues with engagement. And nearly all CEOs ignore engagement data, even worse if it is the people in managerial and leadership roles who are disengaged. Some common attempts to solve the issue involve surveys, or discussing action plans, but these strategies don’t work. If CEOs ignore data on engagement, employees who take the surveys are merely yelling into the void. And, when you consider how engagement is often confused with satisfaction or happiness, those surveys may not even be looking at the correct metric. Action planning is great, but will fall through if it is based on faulty data, or if the plan is just that, a plan, with no follow-up.

If those strategies prove ineffective, what can be done to boost engagement? The first is connection. Humans are social creatures, and when we get into a group, our moods can influence others. Connections to other engaged and happy employees increased the likelihood that you will be engaged and happy, while connections to unhappy employees decrease the likelihood of happiness. In a large group setting, this influence over mood can have devastating effects. We can take advantage of this, beginning by examining the individual. Getting individuals involved and satisfied gets them engaged, which then has a tidal wave effect throughout your organization, as you influence more people and they influence their connections.

An individual becomes disengaged when they experience a pressure in their work environment, which they lack the adequate skills to cope with. There are four main pressures, which we will examine in turn, the first being job fit. In examining the individual, we must first examine their behavioral data, and compare it to the job models for the role that they are in. Sometimes, the reason an employee is disengaged, is that they are a poor fit for their role. People have their natural tendencies, the way they prefer to live and work, and then there are the responsibilities and necessary functions of the role they are in. When those things are not in alignment, there is discomfort, like a shoe that doesn’t fit. If you wore a shoe that did not fit every day for months on end, you would likely tune out your environment just to escape the pain, too. For example, if you have someone in a sales role, who is slow to build connections, is a perfectionist, and prefers to work on tasks rather than interact with people, they are far more likely to be disengaged in the role than someone who is an outgoing people-person, who tends to move quickly between tasks.

The most important thing is to hire right from the start. When hiring for a role, it is essential to look at those job models, make sure they are accurate and updated for the role, and then compare it with the behavioral data of potential candidates. If you already have someone in the role, but they aren’t the best fit, don’t worry. Humans do some amount of self-regulation at work, especially in a group setting. They have their latent behaviors, but they may tone them down or change them slightly, to fit in with the group, or who they think they need to be in a job role. They may need additional support or training to learn how to best do their job, or to find a way to handle the responsibilities of the role that work for them, but it is likely they can learn coping strategies and get there. You may also remove some responsibilities from a role and delegate them to better suited employees; just be certain those receiving the duties are not overburdened. Of course, there are the unfortunate situations where turnover is unavoidable. We want to make sure our employees are comfortable so they can be engaged, and if they would be better suited elsewhere, we can only take the loss and learn from the experience.

Another source of pressure in the workplace comes from management and direct supervisors. Again, examining behavioral data, we can look at our managers and see the ways in which they are naturally inclined to manage – whether it be authoritative, persuasive, and so on. Employees have those same drives, but in reverse – some prefer feedback, some need time to complete their work, some need structure, and details. So, if you have a dominant, overbearing manager and an employee who prefers to have freedom in their work, of course they will butt heads. Likewise, if you have a laissez-faire manager paired with an employee who needs detailed explanations for their projects, the employee will feel lost and give up.

When dealing with engagement, it is important to remember that regardless of your managers’ styles, the needs of their employees come first. Managers need to understand how to deal with different employee behavioral patterns, and need to have the flexibility to switch styles based on who they are dealing with.

The best way to reduce managerial pressure on the individual is by training managers to be more varied in their dealings with employees. It is likely not their intention to be a poor manager – rather, it is more probable they are unaware there are other strategies they can use to get their point across. So, through manager training, we can ease the disconnect between employee and manager, by teaching them how to deal with the different needs of workers.

Expanding our view a bit, we need to look at the culture of the company. Often, disengagement comes from the culture of individual teams interacting with each other within your company, rather than the overall company culture. When groups come together, they develop a singular group dynamic, which you can examine as if it were its own person. A managerial team has different goals and expectations from a development team, from a sales team, from an internal team like budget or HR. And when those two interact, sometimes friction can arise, just as issues arise between individuals. Your financial team may be more structured, paced, and rule-based, while your sales team tends to be overall more impatient, informal, and risk-taking. When these two interact, such as during a meeting or while working on a project, if an issue arises and your teams don’t know how to handle it, they may get frustrated and shut down.

This issue is not limited to dynamics between teams, however. The last major source of disengagement comes from pressure in an individual team. This may seem obvious, but again, humans are social creatures. If someone feels that the group is expected to act or present a certain way, and their individual nature doesn’t match that view, they are going to turn off. It doesn’t have to be the case that they are the exact opposite of their team, either. You may have a marketing crew that is really extroverted, that enjoys detail work and collaboration. And perhaps one member of that team is extroverted, but even more so than their team. In addition, they do enjoy collaboration, but often dominate conversation, and they focus on results more than the rest of their team. Those slight shifts from the overall mold can cause not only the “misfit” to disengage, but the rest of the team, when they find it difficult to work together and mesh well.

When a situation like this does occur, the gut reaction is to cut the “problem” member from the team. Instead, work towards a solution collaboratively. When you become aware of your differences, rather than treat them as problems, you can treat them as different areas of expertise, and use them as advantages. That “problem” team member is actually a challenger, rather than a problem, because they push the group to consider unique perspectives and to think differently.

However, if team members are far too different from one another, you are more likely to breed displeasure. Consider choosing your teams carefully when building a taskforce, or when assigning coworkers. Think about the ideal team you’d like to create. Everyone has their role within that team, just as they have their role in the company. Consider how individuals have behaved on projects previously, whether they showed leadership or preferred to take a more analytical role, and delegate work accordingly.

The same goes for teams working with other teams on a project. It is essential to put only the teams which need to be working on a project, on that project. It wouldn’t make much sense to have someone from an unrelated department working on an assignment that has nothing to do with them, so save everyone the time and resources and delegate carefully.

Another good way to mitigate genuine friction between teams or individuals and boost dynamics is to have a good conflict management strategy in place. This ensures you have a plan in place when issues arise, rather than scrambling to come up with a workflow on the spot. It also trains your employees to have conflict coping strategies, for when other work stressors come up in the future.

Fixing disengagement becomes elementary once you understand that everything ties back to behavioral tendencies. Tension may lie in our differences, but our strength exists there, too. Tackling disengagement with an understanding of behavior means that you too can get your employees connected and involved with the company and its goals, and reap the benefits of engagement.