Employee engagement is a buzzword that has almost lost its meaning because it is constantly being studied, talked about, blogged about, and surveyed in the workplace. If you search the term in Google, millions of these studies and blogs turn up espousing engagement benefits (higher levels of performance, productivity, commitment, loyalty etc. etc.) and – despite continual efforts in acquiring and managing employee feedback on what could be improved to boost engagement levels – lamenting our inability to get it right.
Adding to the plethora of material already available, this post draws from philosophy and sociology rather than business when looking at employee engagement and how to improve the workplace for individuals as well as the organization as a whole.
But first we need to look at the foundation of what employee engagement is.
3 Levels of Engagement
Depending on the study, the time of year that surveys on the subject are completed, and the company performing the test, there are varying degrees of engagement encountered across North America. Deloitte's Human Capital Trends report for 2015 released a study that found 60% of employees are not engaged, 15% are actively disengaged, and 25% are engaged. This suggests that even with all of the research and effort that has been focused on how to foster employee engagement, there has been little improvement.
One of the most striking findings of the studies done by Deloitte and Psychometrics, was the discrepancy between employees and their employers in terms of what influenced engagement most.
89% of employers thought their employees considered financial compensation as being highly influential, while employees who actually consider it a high influencer was only 12%.
While monetary incentives are important, having greater autonomy over one's work, having opportunities to use skills and learn new ones, and having better communication practices and relationships between leadership and staff rank as the top three out of eight measured influencers. These themes are identified by engaged and disengaged employees alike regardless of gender, or generation bracket.
Engagement is driven by the workplace environment and processes. Because of this, those who wield influence over them are seen to have the largest impact on engagement. In other words, it is the organization’s leaders. The vast majority – at 84% - of the Psychometric survey respondents saw senior leaders and managers as being primarily responsible for employee engagement. From the beginning of the hiring process and matching a person’s skillset to the job requirements, to communicating clear expectations and giving recognition, leadership initiates and maintains employee engagement.
A Gallup poll found that there was a trickle-down effect through each level of the organization. When executive teams were highly engaged, the organization’s managers were found to be 39% more likely to be engaged. Followed by when managers were highly engaged, employees were 59% more likely to be engaged.
Stats vary year to year of course, but how engagement data is gathered will alter results. Traditionally, companies have used annual or semi-annual polls. However, critics of this method see asking employees once a year or once a quarter as not giving an accurate depiction of day to day engagement. “Pulse Surveys” check a company’s employee’s engagement and well-being on a daily or weekly basis. This real-time gathering of continuous feedback in addition to, or instead of annual surveys also provides more opportunities for more employees to participate and questions can be tailored depending on the organization’s needs.
Continued frequent polling then allows the company to see what kind of impact the changes that were made has had. The feedback from these surveys is seen as being the key to an organization running smoothly with engaged employees. Yet these programs create the expectation among employees that fixes are coming, and if the company is not prepared to make use of the feedback given, and are unable to give demonstrable concrete ways of how they are fixing found issues, the opposite of the desired effect could take place resulting in a decrease in employee engagement.
Finding Fulfillment in what you do
Karl Marx has had his theories and musings distorted in modern times to the point where even the mention of his name in certain circles is borderline taboo. Yet, the findings of these studies are consistent with what he was arguing in the 19th century. Marx’s theory of alienation describes the estrangement and disenchantment of people from what they do, how they do it, as well as from the peers they work with. It is interesting to see the continued relevance of this theory in how the top three influencers on employee engagement mentioned earlier speak so loudly to it.
Another thinker whose ideas fall in line with Marx’s Alienation, is Emile Durkheim. His notion of “anomie” speaks to the need of humanity to belong, to be a part of something, or to see their work through to completion.
“Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free him from all social pressure is to abandon him to himself and demoralize him.” Durkheim, On Suicide: A Study in Sociology
This division of labour is what has been so successful in driving both economic and technological progress. Yet it is also this divided, meaningless, repetitive, and highly specialized way of doing work that has alienated such a large percentage of the workforce.
Adam Grant spoke about a study that he did on meaning and engagement at a TEDx event in Philadelphia in 2011. He was interested in the correlation between the perceptions that we have on the impact our work has on the organization and others, and disengagement and burnout levels. To study this, he looked at university fundraisers. This position was found to have exceptionally low engagement levels, and an average turnover rate of the entire staff every 2 to 3 months due to high levels of stress and rejection rates on calls.
Prior to the experiment, fundraisers did not have a clear idea of where the funds they raised went, or how they were distributed. To see the effect that effort and its perceived impact have, Grant brought in a student who was able to attend the university because of scholarship money raised through the fundraisers efforts. After meeting the student for just five minutes, and seeing the end game of their efforts, as well as the impact that it had on the life of the recipient, the fundraisers stayed on calls 2.5 times longer per week, and brought in five times as much money each week.
Workers throughout all industries need to see the end game of their efforts. Employees need to have a connection and a sense of pride in their work and the products that they produce.
Why it’s Still Important to Talk about Fulfillment and Engagement
The advantage of engagement goes beyond better communication and directly impacts the production and efficiency of organizations. Because of this, and the effect it has on employees actually wanting to be a part of the organization, the belief in the issue of engaging people has become one of the biggest competitive differentiators between firms. Engagement should not be an isolated activity. Rather, in best-practice organizations, engagement policies are embedded in the regular performance management of each team, which are initiated and maintained by executive leadership.
Increasing engagement is a multifaceted challenge. The light at the end of the tunnel is that changes such as better communication and giving employees more autonomy are not overly costly to implement, and they make a large impact on employees. The downside, is the very fact that this topic has been studied so much, and these solutions have been known for many years, yet companies and their leaders still struggle with it.
Perhaps the most fitting philosopher for this topic would be Nietzsche, whose musings Alain de Botton breaks down most eloquently,
“The most fulfilling human projects appear inseparable from a degree of torment, the sources of our greatest joys lying awkwardly close to those of our greatest pains… Why? Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who are wish to one day be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfillment. Nietzsche was striving to correct the belief that fulfillment must come easily or not at all, a belief ruinous in its effects, for it leads us to withdraw prematurely from challenges that might have been overcome if only we had been prepared for the savagery legitimately demanded by almost everything valuable.”
We spend so much of our time at work, at the end of the day you should feel proud of what you have accomplished, and what it took to do it.
Sources used in this post:
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