Posted 20th April 2019

There are some scary statistics out there for a business when it comes to the engagement of employees, not least Gallop’s latest survey on “Five ways to improve employee engagement” which found that 67% of employees in America and 87% worldwide are not engaged.

What’s most concerning is that this figure seems to have been rising steadily over the years and shows no sign of slowing down.  Combined with our understanding of the independent thinking of Millennials and the up and coming Gen Zers, (see our blog on Millennials and Gen Zers), and even the most sceptical of people will recognise that this upward trend of disengagement is only set to increase.

Whilst it is right to be dubious about the exact percentage or what ‘fully engaged’ actually means, there is no doubt that one of the hardest things to do as a manager and organisation is to ensure that employees are actually 100% engaged and delivering. 

What does engagement really mean?

Before we go racing ahead to see what, if anything, can be done, it is worth looking at what engagement really means.  At face value it seems obvious. Engagement reflects the level of someone’s enthusiasm and involvement with the work they perform.  This makes sense, up to a point. But then the big question is asked: how do you increase someone’s enthusiasm and help them to feel more involved with their work? 

If you trawl the internet for suggestions on how to improve engagement there are plenty of articles recommending approaches.  For example:

  1. Use the right employee engagement surveys
  2. Focus on engagement at the local and organiszational levels
  3. Select the right managers
  4. Coach managers and hold them accountable for their employees’ engagement
  5. Define engagement goals in realistic, everyday terms

Or perhaps it is easier to:

  1. Treat employees as customers. Marketers use customer experience as a metric for a good reason
  2. Focus on the bigger picture
  3. Develop your employee brand
  4. Focus on the experience that you offer
  5. Build a workplace for the future

These are all good things to consider, but despite an increasing recognition by HR and an even more investment in these areas, the issue of engagement is getting bigger and will only continue to rise. 

So perhaps we need to relook at what engagement actually means. 

Let’s get back to basics

An organisation wants an employee, or indeed anyone working for them (giggers noted), to be enthusiastic and involved. But the working relationship is a two-way street. And in any successful relationship both parties should know what each other truly wants.  

For the individual it is easy.  As long as they have a good manager, they will know the purpose of the organisation, and their role and contribution to that organisation’s goals. They will know their own goals and have those broken down into specific tasks. They will see progress over the year and gain periodic feedback and annually they can say what their ambition is and what training they want. They will get paid and have benefits. In essence, they will know what is expected of them, why it is important, and what they will get in return.

But that is just one side of the relationship. The organisation’s side. The part where it breaks down is when the individual thinks about whether this is actually what they want.  

Do they believe in the organisation’s goals, or are they agnostic?  They may well see how their role fits into the organisation and understand the merit, but does this does not necessarily fit well with their view of themselves and their personal vision of the future.  Can they see how they can develop and be fulfilled? It’s important that they can create their personal brand and gain the experience they wish for in order to move on and succeed. They also need to have the right work/life blend and be compensated sufficiently for their efforts or the compromises they are making. This could be in terms of salary expectation, job function or something as simple as workplace location and the commute to work. Above all, they need to know that the organisation values them so that they feel secure and can see a path forward, whether it be for recognition, promotion, a pay rise, more responsibility or a new role.

There is much research that supports what we all instinctively know: that individuals are ultimately self-interested and not selfless. They work for an end result, whether that is a pay packet, development or some higher purpose.  Millennials and Gen Zers, for example, are motivated by acquiring transferable skills and experience that will give them purpose and security.  Knowing what an individual truly wants, values and is motivated by, is key to ensuring that they are engaged. After all, it is ultimately their choice to be engaged or not. 

So, whilst engagement technically refers to someone’s involvement and enthusiasm, what it is really implying is someone’s motivation. Unless you understand, and can deliver (in part) to someone’s underlying motivations, there will always be an engagement gap.  They will always be asking questions and looking over their shoulder and out the door – i, in fact 51% of employees are actively job hunting according to this report from Inc.com. 

If you can harness their motivations and understand how, as an organisation, you can deliver something relevant to them, then you can achieve a self-motivated workforce.  A workforce that will be working for their future and the organisation’s too. The upside to this is a good employee brand and highly engaged workforce, more productivity, less attrition and less recruitment costs. There is even research to say that this will bring reduced stress in the workplace… but that’s another blog.

Teresa Fox
Post author:Teresa Fox

Teresa Fox is a Co-CEO and Founder of Optunli.

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