Employee engagement is usually defined in one of three ways: 1) The passion one expresses for their job; 2) The commitment one has to their organization; or 3) The discretionary effort one puts into their work. I couldn’t disagree more. Why?
Consider Marvin—a 55-year-old mid manager for a global food manufacturer. Marvin regularly wears a hat and jacket sporting his company logo (quite frankly both items of clothing have seen better days), he has been with his company for 26 years, and every year he takes at least one workshop or seminar to help upgrade his skills. If you measure engagement based on expressed passion, longevity, and discretionary effort (e.g., opting into training courses), Marvin would count as an engaged employee. The problem is that Marvin hasn’t been engaged in years. He’s happy to go through the motions, but in actual fact, he is just counting down the days to his retirement. But Marvin is not alone.
Just as Hallmark sabotaged Valentine’s Day, corporations have destroyed engagement. In this case, the culprit isn’t cheesy cards but rather chasing false metrics, like those described in relation to Marvin. In fact, employee satisfaction and employee engagement are two very different things. Why? While satisfaction is about an employee’s relationship to their organization, engagement is about an employee’s relationship to their actual job—the role they play within an organization. While liking or loving one’s organization may help, one can be engaged in their work and not like or love their employer. Recognizing this, I believe, is the first step to tackling the ongoing engagement challenge.
To begin rethinking engagement, organizations need to first shift their focus from PR to support. That’s right—“corporate branding” matters but if you’re only focused on getting employees to rank your organization high on platforms like Glassdoor, you’ll still have an engagement problem on your hands. To move forward, organizations need clear goals, strategies to position employees for success, and a capacity to promote autonomy.
1. Establish Clear Goals
Give employees laser clarity about the outcomes that they need to execute major projects, and then allow them the autonomy and flexibility to assess what they need to be their very best. When employees know what they need to do and have the freedom to do it their way, not your way, they typically feel more engaged. Understandably, for some managers this is frightening. You may not like watching an employee leave everything to the last minute but for a pressure-prompted employee, this may be how they do their very best work.
2. Position Employees for Success
Although we are all different, all too often, employees are subjected to a one-size-fits-all set of policies and work environments. Engaging employees is also about understanding what they need to be successful. One employee may do their best work in a silent room and another may do their best work in a busy café. Some employees love to work on teams and thrive in collaborative environments while others are lone wolves who are at their peak when working in on their own. The bottom line is that before you restructure the workplace (e.g., decide to adopt a fully open office or introduce mandatory remote work), remember that everyone has their own conditions for peak performance.
3. Promote Autonomy
Rather than “coddling” employees, incentivize them to cultivate self-awareness and encourage creativity in achieving goals. Most importantly, reward individuals for both achieving outcomes and hacking the process to get things done more quickly and with more impact. Empower employees to take ownership of their projects and find creative solutions. In the process, your employees will not only feel more engaged but also increase your organization’s overall productivity.
If there is one challenge that leaders need to overcome, it is assumption that satisfied now means forever satisfied. Of course, if you have employees who are sticking around and producing great results in the present, it can be difficult to look beyond the immediate situation. After all, if it’s working, don’t fix it, right? Not necessarily. Engagement is ultimately about long-term gains. Rather than asking employees, “Are you satisfied?”, employers should ask, “If you stay in your current role, do you think you’ll be satisfied here in six months? What about six years? If not, what’s your vision for the future and how can we help realize it?” Helping employees move toward their future goals is one way to ensure that an organization’s engagement efforts will build momentum over time. Assuming employees stick around and keep growing and learning on the job, the return on investment for such efforts is also bound to be great.