Employee Engagement - What it is and how to get it

by Michael Kline

Last week, I had the pleasure of conducting a workshop for a group of human resource executives from around New Hampshire. To be as participatory as possible, we used Circle Process to facilitate the program, and opened with a check-in question to identify the meaning of "engagement" in the various organizations represented. We built a center focal point of the words shared by the participants. Mostly the words and accompanying explanations were traditional, such as participation, teamwork, compassion, communication, drive, active, respect, etc. All of these certainly are indicative of engagement. Further discussion went to explore ways to measure employee engagement, possible ways to increase it and challenges to expect in the process.

We discussed Gallup’s defining surveys on employee engagement. Gallup surveys over 6400 employees representing a wide demographic, scoring employee engagement nationwide. Painting with broad brushstrokes, less than 30% of employees are engaged, about 50% are neutral and almost 20% are actually hostile. How do we measure engagement? The survey asks participants to rate a variety of issues ranging from having a best friend at work, to having the tools necessary to do a good job, to getting feedback on their work. The results of the Gallup research are closely tied to a company's financial bottom line, as well as customer satisfaction, work quality and safety issues.

Problems occur when management focuses excessively on measurable short-term results. They do not have time for emotional issues; they simply need employees to show up and produce results. These management types often define engagement as showing up and putting in long hours. Knowing that engagement is a trendy topic, they often plaster the trendy “engagement” word on the same old programs and pretend it is something new. This is not the same as truly embracing the complexities of whole-person leadership in the knowledge-worker age. Unless you are running an assembly line with illegal immigrants, the industrial age is over.  It is time to move beyond these old management models. Un-engaged  management often calls real engagement work "touchy-feely stuff” and they relegate it to the HR department to process it for lower level employees, so long as it doesn't cut into productivity time or budget.

The solution is for management to become a leadership team and understand that engagement is the shortest path to sustainable results. Engagement is measurable and is directly tied to all areas of results for employees, customers, stockholders, vendors, etc. Engagement requires vulnerability, which requires enormous strength and courage. Engagement requires giving employees a voice, but not necessarily a vote. It requires making everyone feel safe, cared-for, heard and respected, even when they do not get their way. In such an environment, it is possible to build consensus and support even while disagreeing. The time-consuming hard work required to invest in engagement produces a culture of high trust, low cost, fast moving, mission-focused, and committed workers doing what they do best, in the best possible way.

The vast majority of the good work employees do is discretionary. They do not actually have to do their best work to keep their job – just compare your top producers with your least productive who still keep their jobs. Cleary, the top producers go above and beyond what is technically required of them. Your goal is to get them to do that more often and to enjoy doing it. The joy they find in giving more is the only reward they need. This only happens if the employer is deserving and when the employee is emotionally connected to the work, the mission and the values of their employer.

Because I wanted to model high-engagement practices, our HR workshop allowed for a high level of audience participation. One participant asked a question that was supported by the group and shifted the focus from what I expected I would be teaching. Teaching what the group wants to learn is far more engaging than teaching what I want to teach. The lesson is that identifying ideas that employees find important, and taking advantage of the energy that lies within those ideas, is how employers can engage the discretionary contribution of employees.

We have 8,800 non-profit organizations in NH. With most employees not engaged at work, huge numbers of employees choose to donate their personal time to non-profit and charity work. This is further evidence that many employees have much more to give than their work requires or even allows them to contribute. People have more to give, but not at work, because work is more emotionally exhausting than it is rewarding. People would rather do work that is technically even harder to do, but that is more emotionally satisfying. This represents the untapped potential of the team you already have on payroll. They are starving for an employer that will allow them to reach their potential, to contribute to something worthwhile, to grow in mastery, autonomy and with purpose. Your opportunity is to unleash that potential for them.

Michael Kline is a Certified RIM Facilitator and trainer for personal and group transformation. You can reach him through his website www.intus.life, or e-mail mike@intus.life.

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