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Employee engagement is hard to come by, argues Aniisu K. Verghese

16th July 2013


Every organization is keen to have engaged staff who can move the organization forward. However, employee engagement isn’t easy to come by. Worldwide, 4 out of 10 employees are not engaged reports the AON-Hewitt – 2013 Trends in Global Employee Engagement study.

So why is tackling employee engagement tough?

For one, many organizations don’t have a clear understanding of what engagement entails.  Very often, it is mistaken for getting on a ‘best places’ or ‘great workplace’ award list or creating a series of initiatives that portray the best efforts of the organization to make employees ‘feel’ wanted.
To compound the issue, there are many stakeholders and no real owners. A 2004 Corporate Leadership Council Employee Engagement Survey identified and explored over 300 potential levers of engagement. Even if one attempts to influence just 50 from that list it can take a lot of effort!

However, there is growing evidence that engaged staff impact business outcomes and performance. According to the same study highly committed employees are known to try 57% harder, perform 20% better, and are 87% less like to leave than employees with low levels of commitment. Gallup’s Great Workplace award winners average a ratio of engaged employees to actively disengaged employees that is more than five times the ratio in the U.S. and more than 20 times the ratio of workforces globally.

The definitions and how organizations often go about tackling employee engagement are varied and the corresponding advice lacks focus. For example, Kenexa’s WorkTrends 2012/13 Report states that engagement is “the extent to which employees are motivated to contribute to organizational success, and are willing to apply discretionary effort to accomplishing tasks important to the achievement of organizational goals.” AON-Hewitt’s model discusses the propensity of employees to ‘say’-‘stay’-‘strive’. Gallup’s research focused on four workplace engagement themes - Strategy and Leadership, Accountability and Performance, Communication and Knowledge Management, Development and Ongoing Learning. Most of the advice is related to benefits, pay, job security, diversity, talent management and culture – areas which not everyone has control on. For example, one recommendation from a leading engagement consultant reads ‘engagement initiatives need to focus on equipping every level of the workforce’ and ‘managers to address disengagement decisively’.

There is a clear gap in how leaders view the impact of their effort on engagement and what employees experience on the ground. The Engage Group’s largest ever study in the UK – ‘Empowering Employees: New Rules of Engagement’ shares that while there is consensus among senior leaders on the need to invest and grow an engaged workforce it didn’t match with the expectations of employees. Just over a third of employees feel engaged and 4 in 10 believe their leaders are effective. Here is another piece of evidence: A Tower’s Perrin Talent Report: Understanding What drives Employee Engagement identifies the #1 driver of employee engagement as the employees’ belief that senior management is interested in their well-being. However, only 42% agree that this was true in their organization!

Strangely, there is a mistaken belief that the Human Resources (HR) department is completely responsible for employee engagement. While everyone turns to this team as the default owner for employee engagement unfortunately they have limited reach and impact. A study by Interbrand – ‘Unlocking the Power of Employees to Drive Success’ discovered that while employee engagement responsibilities rest with either the HR or the internal communications team interestingly only a third of leaders led from the front.

Today, employees get their information; stay connected and engaged using non-traditional routes. They often refer to their managers to gain insights and support. Edelman’s 2010 report – Trends in Organizational (Internal) Communications/Employee Engagement shares how the rules of engagement has overturned years of HR practices and principles. It states that ‘the company and the employee now have a more direct relationship’. The explosion of social media further accelerates the process of engagement as well as disengagement. Employees can look up a Glassdoor.com and get a sense of how engaged staff feel about the workplace or how well a leader faces. A study by Gagen MacDonald reveals that close to 60% of people would love to work for an organization and over 80% are willing to refer others to the workplace if it uses internal social media. The demanding millennials at the workplace make engagement even more complex. The meaningfulness of an organization’s societal contributions is a strong reason for millennials to join and stay.
Organizations are enamored by best practices and hope that latching on to a few initiatives will ensure better traction. Nothing can be further away from the truth. There is no ‘one size-fits all’ when it comes to engagement. Every organization, be it a Google or a Zappos have created a culture that fosters engagement. The compelling ‘time to invent’ policy at Google or the ‘take a USD 1000 and leave if you don’t fit in’ action taken at Zappos can build distinct identities which not every organization can replicate.

Recent research has indicated that it finally comes to work and how employees feel connected to what they do every day. Therefore, understanding employees, their aspirations and wants can be a step in the right direction. While some studies do point to financial rewards and benefits are key drivers of engagement they are not what make employees stay back and engage with the organization. Yes, ‘hygiene’ factors such as compensation and a healthy work environment does matter but going by a Accenture Institute for High Performance report - What Executives Really Need to Know About Employee Engagement (2011) employees want to make a difference, know that the company cares for them and that it is team effort.
This is corroborated by the two leading researchers, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer who co-authored the Progress Principle. They discovered ‘great inner work life – positive emotions, strong internal motivation, and favorable perceptions about colleagues and the work itself – is key to an innovative, productive, engaged, and committed workforce’. In other words, making meaningful progress every day and being supported by their managers are what employees look forward to at work.

Daniel Pink, a management thinker in his book – Drive identifies three key themes which enable people to stay connected – autonomy, mastery and purpose.  He shares that the rules of motivation have changed over the years and they don’t apply in today’s world. Motivation 3.0, as he coins is about giving employees opportunities to discover their best, make a lasting and larger impact and find meaning from what they do. Carrots and sticks approach doesn’t work always and very rarely produces the same effect as genuine workplace nourishment.

In summary, employee engagement is a priority and there isn’t one single way to tackle it. Also, engagement isn’t a one way street. Every employee has a responsibility to stay engaged by evaluating skills, engaging the supervisor and investing in learning and personal development. However, the opportunities internal communicators can tap are immense.  From their vantage point in the organization they can audit the current state of affairs, understand the latent needs among employees and recommend optimal solutions that resonate with the organization’s goals. Employees want to know the organization’s perspective, their journey, how they can pitch their effort, how they fit in and the way ahead. But, less than half of employees surveyed in AON-Hewitt’s global study think their company is adept with even the basics of communication. Communicating consistently, involving staff in decision making, helping employees get a better line of sight and appealing to their inner needs are strategies that can turn the tide with employee engagement.

Aniisu K. Verghese is an internal communication expert, career coach and author of Internal Communications – Insights, Practices and Models (Sage Publications, 2012).

He is presenting a full-day, hands-on workshop: Internal Communications 301 – Employee Engagement, Internal Social Media and Beyond on July 20, 2013 at Bangalore. Those interested in attending can find out more here or register by emailing intraskope@yahoo.com.

Aniisu is also the Vice-President – Finance, South India Chapter – International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and served as an elite panelist who evaluated and shortlisted Asia Pacific entries for the 2012 IABC’s Gold Quill Awards. He currently serves as the India Internal Communications Lead for Sapient. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the views of the organization he works for.


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