By Elliot H. Clark
For a moment, imagine that we are living in the past. You are standing at an HR conference asking a group of HR professionals what creates employee engagement. You get a variety of answers, and the explanations are complex and involve multiple elements—more like a “recipe” than a “thing.” HR knows that employee engagement is the result of several different elements working together. Good survey scores are an expression of good employee engagement, not a “thing” unto themselves.
Then, at the same mythical conference, you ask the question to random managers. In response, you get a blank stare or a survey score. In many companies, managers just don’t know what drives engagement. Is this the failing of HR? Maybe, but the truth is that like all HR problems, it is a complex one. The HR community has spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars on employee engagement surveys over the past five decades, and the reportability of the data collection process has become the focus of much of the dialogue between managers and HR.
As we profile the employee engagement survey industry in this month’s annual Baker’s Dozen Customer Satisfaction Ratings for Employee Engagement, we recognize that the best service partners work hard to provide clients with actionable goals to share with managers to improve engagement. However, many processes remain annual, with goals established once a year. There tends to be a lot of initial communication and training with managers on their behaviors and objectives, but like all learning, that fades quickly. We see that “fade” show up in studies on adult learning in the workplace. While there is a growing trend for more frequent pulse surveys, they do not always come with clear guidance for shorter-term action.
If we step back and ask ourselves why we care about engagement, HR will respond that it leads to higher productivity, greater employee retention, reduced talent acquisition costs, reduced training costs for new employees, and prevents knowledge loss that adversely impacts corporate productivity. Engagement is a measure of how well employees perform and their likelihood to stay at the organization. To maintain high engagement and a positive company culture, HR also needs to provide a rewards program, an inclusive environment for all employees, good leadership communication, career development opportunities, and perhaps most importantly, strong frontline management.
Everyone in HR knows that recipe, but frankly, manager training is sometimes lacking and often needs better resources. In reality, managers don’t just need training, they need coaching. Historically, coaching is an expensive process reserved for only the most senior and most experienced management professionals. On the frontlines where the battle for engagement is really won, it is usually relegated to online course work, some in-person training (pre-pandemic), and in a small percentage of companies, an organized manager mentorship program. Managers don’t always learn the interpersonal skills needed to drive engagement, give authentic recognition, build relationships with subordinates, and understand the delicate balance between co-worker and authority figure.
There are a host of new services that provide remote coaching and leadership development for frontline managers. These coaching programs are a combination of AI-driven assessments based on profiling the manager and analyzing what they need. Some companies offer remote coaching sessions from organizational development professionals as a more expensive option. The move from training to coaching should be part of the recipe for employee engagement in the future.
We need to recognize what produces engagement versus what measures it. Better frontline managers are vital, and we need more investment in management development to promote better engagement.