In The Employee Life Cycle, When Do Employees Choose To Engage — Or Not?
By Bill Hatton
Engaged employees are the life-blood of productive organizations.
When a company’s workforce is engaged, the results are astonishing: Engaged-workforce companies produce 147 percent higher earnings per share. This engagement benefi ts companies across the board; they have improved quality (41 percent fewer defects), better safety performance (half the safety incidents), and less turnover (nearly two-thirds lower in “high turnover” organizations and about one-third lower in “low turnover” organizations). They also have 37 percent less absenteeism. Those numbers are according to Gallup, which has been tracking engagement since the 1990s.
What percentage of the workforce puts their attention and energy into their jobs? The numbers are well known— they’re terrible, and they have stubbornly have remained stagnant for the past 15 years. Gallup says it’s 13 percent worldwide and 32 percent in the United States.
That’s a lot of people going through the motions, doing what they can to get by, and playing without their head in the game. And, as the statistics show, this not only leads to lower company performance, but the safety numbers also show that workers’ health is at risk.
Where in the employee life cycle are people most likely to either engage or, most likely to check out mentally? What are the moments of engagement and disengagement? HRO Today spoke with four leading experts in the employee engagement fi eld. Their answers offer a blueprint for companies seeking to ensure that they’re offering employees the greatest opportunity to fully engage in their work.
- When people think they’ve reached a dead end
Perhaps promotion opportunities aren’t available. Perhaps a worker knows the next promotion will likely go to a different colleague. Perhaps the employee doesn’t see how to get from one place to the next. The employee thinks, “This isn’t going anywhere.” He or she either quits and leaves, or worse, quits and stays.
Dr. Beverly Kaye, founder of Career Systems International and best-selling author of “Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em: Getting Good People to Stay,” and more recently, “Hello, Stay Interviews, Goodbye, Talent Loss,” says when people don’t see a career path, they are likely to check out.
“One of the biggest drivers of engagement is career opportunity,” Kaye says. “When employees see career opportunities in their organizations, and see how it fits them, I think they will stay. When they don’t see opportunities, they’ll look to leave.”
One problem: People define career path as promotion. That’s a mistake for the employee and for the organization sending that message, Kaye says.
“Sometimes, the opportunities are right in front of people’s eyes,” Kaye says. “I think measuring engagement by your title and how long you’ve had the same title is not the way to measure engagement. It’s really, ‘are you learning’? ‘Are you having new experiences’? ‘Are you working with great colleagues’?”
Keys: Organizations need to stress learning opportunities and opportunities to apply that learning, that is, skillbuilding. Someone who is learning new skills and has successful applications of those skills is growing on the job—growth opportunities boost engagement. Managers need to communicate those and work with employees during them. The individual employee needs to seize the opportunity.
“I think attempts to raise engagement levels will fail if there isn’t a development focus in place,” Kaye says. “That development needs to focus on ‘me growing,’ but not necessarily ‘me going somewhere else.’”
2. During the survey process
It’s easy to mistake the survey process for an engagement program, and it’s easy to want to survey everything to get a complete picture. Result: The surveys create a “disconnect” among the employee, the manager, and the organization.
Dr. Jim Harter, chief scientist for workplace management and well-being for Gallup, says, “Organizations will include way too much on the measurement part of the employeeengagement process. Managers have trouble figuring out how to act on the results. They’re not given good instruction on how.”
companies may measure attitudes toward benefits and perks, communication, leadership, collaboration, as well as more company-specific emphases such as safety.
“More times than not, the instrument itself is just too long,” Harter says. “It isn’t focused on the most basic issues expected of me at work. Only half the people we study worldwide know what’s expected of them at work. So people come to work kind of confused. Organizations will ignore those basics [such as] do people have the materials and equipment they need to do their work on a daily basis?”
Keys: As much as possible, remember that surveys about engagement affect engagement. Short, timely, and focused is better than comprehensive, evergreen, and generic.
“Many organizations are focused on higher-level constructs,” Harter says. “They’ll never get those higher-level things done, things like leadership and communication, if they overlook the basics: Do people get recognition when they do good work? What is the right kind of recognition for them individually? Are they in a job where they have the opportunity to do what they do best, where they have the opportunity to use their natural talents on a daily basis? Those are the kinds of things that get overlooked.”
3. When following up a survey
When management action follows the employee concerns uncovered in the survey, employees will likely feel validated and believe the survey was worth their effort and that the company cares about their career concerns. They’re more likely to engage. So there’s a danger moment after a survey while employees wait for the other shoe to drop.
Phil Stewart, CEO of Engage2Excel, which is a recentlyrenamed employee-recognition firm formerly known as TharpeRobbins, offers a 3-2-1 rule of thumb: Pick three priorities, take two actions for each one, and talk about it once. “If you have consultants come in and give you 50 things to do, you won’t do them.”
As a new CEO as of March 2015, Stewart offers his own experience as an example. One priority is financials. One action step is quarterly discussions with the company about financial results, where the targets are, and how the company is trying to achieve them. “That allows individuals to do behavioral change, to understand [priorities] and align with company’s future.” The second action step is mid-management roundtables, conducted monthly with groups of 10 to 12 managers. “I really educate them about what our organization’s trying to accomplish, so they can cascade information. They can go out to their populations and say, ‘Here’s what I learned, so I can better answer your questions,’” he says.
Also: Stewart says the new trend toward pulse surveys – quick, hard-hitting surveys—presents dangers. Daily questions, which some companies include, will encourage people to tune out; these people will also wonder about management’s judgment. However, a monthly or projectspecific pulse survey can be effective.
“I think pulses are very effective if I’m trying to measure an initiative,” Stewart explains. “I did a larger research engagement survey. I wanted to understand – was it helping? Was it making an impact? But if I called you every day and asked you how you are doing, well, organizational change takes a little longer than a day.”
4. When kicking off a project
People want meaningful work. They want to know how their work aligns with company goals, and that includes the company mission. One opportunity to connect the dots for employees is at the start of an assignment, special project, or initiative.
Anita Bowness, global practice leader in business consulting, for talent-management software and solutions provider Halogen Software, says managers need to help make the connection for their employees. Explain why what the company does is important (e.g., mission), why an assignment is important to the company, and how an individual’s assignment aligns with those goals. Then, remembering that people have individual goals, show them how the assignment fits in with their professional development and gives them a chance to use the talent they have.
“I think leaders have a responsibility to help their employees make that connection between what they have to offer or what they bring to the table, and how they can best leverage their talents in their job,” Bowness says. “And, even more importantly, why they want to invest their time and energy into their work. Leaders really do have that responsibility of clearly communicating and showing where that work can make a difference. I think some leaders assume that people get it and assume that if they say it once, they’re heard and they’re understood. But it does need to be reinforced.”
Example: A large telecommunications company was strategically pivoting. Strategic priorities were changed. “As such, they needed their managers to play a key role because people just weren’t getting it,” Bowness explains. “They invested heavily in communications around four strategic pillars [and] really word-smithed them out. But at the end of the day, frontline employees had no idea how they connected to making technological innovation happen.”
Senior leadership had to step back and come up with a new plan. They ended up investing in a learning and development initiative to help create a clear line of sight for employees. The result was a spike in productivity in the ensuing 12 months. People were aligning their personal goals to departmental goals, which then aligned to the organization’s strategic pillars.
5. When expecting feedback
There are moments in which workers will expect some coaching and feedback. If they get it, they’ll engage more. If not, they may disengage.
“It’s not really a formal program. It’s just more of your mindset that you have as a leader. You’re a coach, and you have to provide feedback,” Bowness says. “It’s not just at the start of a project, end of a project, or on a quarterly basis, but ongoing—frequent touch points with employees to ensure they’re clear on expectations and that you’re demonstrating your support and coaching when you need to. You’re providing feedback to make sure they have the skills and knowledge or expertise to accomplish their goals. And also [making sure] that they have the time, the resources, and maybe even the autonomy and authority to make decisions along the way.”
Keys: Managers need to have the opportunity to develop their coaching skills and may need to receive feedback from more senior executives on how to best develop their talent and keep people engaged. That being said, paying attention goes a long way.
6. When others disengage and no action is taken
Engagement is contagious and so is disengagement. Negative comments can poison a team, if they are allowed to fester. But if negative comments are combined with disengagement, others will see if the organization will respond. That lets them know what kind of team they’re on. If there’s no response, disengagement can spread and even metastasize. It becomes part of the company culture. This is especially true if managers express negativity, and regular coaching can help keep managers positive, as managers seek to improve the people around them.
“Investing time in coaching is time well spent so that you don’t have to course correct when performance doesn’t meet expectations down the line,” Bowness says. “Or you’ve got a disengaged or unmotivated employee who has low engagement, is not putting in their best effort, and is potentially dragging down the people around them, too.”
Caveat: Complaints may be legitimate and thus offer an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive. If the complainer is seeking an actual solution to an actual problem, then the managers can foster engagement by addressing concerns. Similarly, a failed response can double-down the disengagement.
Keys: Address negative attitudes as soon as they surface. Determine if the problem is rooted in legitimate concerns or in excessive complaining; if the person is a complainer and the organization can’t turn it around, consider moving the individual out of harm’s way.
7. Recognizing effort
People want recognition, and that can range from a personal thank you from a manager to a bonus. The key is that individuals want individual recognition. Everyone wants a financial reward, but rarely do people only want money as a token of recognition.
“Not everybody is motivated by money. They think, ‘well, what’s in it for me?’” Bowness says. “For many, the incentive or the motivation is to be part of something that matters. I worked with another organization to build a rewards and recognition program and very quickly they scrapped the word ‘rewards’ because rewards implies a dollar value. And if you make people ‘coin operated’ in that they expect a financial reward, or a gift card, or a commission, or a payout every time that they go above and beyond, then, if that [incentive] is removed, they won’t put in their best effort.”
Better: Customize recognition efforts as much as possible.