You could fill a room with business books, articles and blog posts that talk about “employee engagement”. Have you heard of it? Perhaps you’ve seen it referenced on a poster in the workplace, or in a PowerPoint deck from HQ, or mentioned in a communication from your business leader or HR. Has anyone ever bothered to explain to you what it is and why it matters? Before you dismiss it as touchy-feely corporate jargon de jour, allow me to attempt to convince you otherwise—to extol employee engagement as the single greatest business factor that can lead a company to towering heights and unparalleled success. Wow, how’s that for setting the bar high?
What is employee engagement?
“When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.” – Simon Sinek
Employee engagement occurs when the employee feels that his own goals, values and interests are completely aligned with those of the organization. As a result, the employee is motivated to work and contribute to the company’s success—not because she has to do it, but because she wants to do it. Why? Because in doing so the employee is able to enhance his own well-being. Employee engagement has been described as an emotional commitment between the employee and employer. According to Kevin Kruse in an article he wrote for Forbes magazine:
“This emotional commitment means engaged employees actually care about their work and their company. They don’t work just for a paycheck, or just for the next promotion, but work on behalf of the organization’s goals.”
What employee engagement is not
“Engaged employees stay for what they give (they like their work); disengaged employees stay for what they get (favorable job conditions, growth opportunities, job security).” – Blessing White’s The State of Employee Engagement 2008
Based upon the above description of employee engagement, it’s easy to see why organizations around the world are all abuzz and eager to jump on the employee engagement bandwagon. Why then do so many struggle with ever achieving any significant level of employee engagement? It’s probably because most confuse employee engagement with employee satisfaction. As a result, they waste their time and resources trying to make their employees happy. Relaxing the dress code and allowing your employees to wear jeans and shorts into the office may make them happy, but it’s not going to motivate them to work late into the night to finish a critical project. An employee who is satisfied—who is never late and never complains—is just as likely to take a call from a headhunter and leave the organization as one who is disgruntled. Engaged employees are happy and satisfied; happy and satisfied employees are not necessarily engaged.
How high employee engagement leads to better business outcomes
“To win in the marketplace you must first win in the workplace.” – Doug Conant, CEO of Campbell’s Soup
The return on investment to companies who understand, invest in and foster an engaged workforce is extraordinary. The most significant byproducts of high employee engagement:
- Lower absenteeism and turnover – engaged employees are less stressed (therefore, they tend to be healthier) and they are more loyal to their employer.
- Greater productivity and increased work ethic – engaged employees go the extra mile, they use discretionary effort, and they don’t display behaviors that undermine the organization.
- Greater willingness to innovate and engage in meaningful problem-solving – engaged employees feel invested in the organization and want it to succeed, so they take it upon themselves to seek a better way.
- Higher customer satisfaction – not only do engaged employees go the extra distance for their employer, but they go the extra distance for the employer’s customers, which results in fewer customer complaints, increased referrals, and higher customer retention.
- Increased sales, revenue and profitability
The “Holy Trinity” of employee engagement
Now that we have an understanding of what employee engagement is, what it is not and why it is important, the last remaining question to be answered is, “HOW?” How does an organization build a culture that nurtures engaged employees? The answer is simple: they attend to the three factors that influence an employee’s level of engagement—the “Holy Trinity”, or the components of the employee engagement calculus:
- Importance of the work – employees must believe what they are working on is important and meaningful.
- Personal & professional growth – employees must believe they are given an appropriate amount of responsibility, are growing their functional and leadership skills, and have a work/life balance that is appropriate for them.
- Effective leadership – employees must trust and respect their leaders, believe that they make effective decisions and are accountable for their actions, and have the employees’ best interests in mind.
“On what high-performing companies should be striving to create: A great place for great people to do great work.” – Marilyn Carlson, former CEO of Carlson Companies
When all three of these factors are present, employee engagement occurs. The greater the intersection of these factors, the higher the level of employee engagement. Like a three-legged stool, all three legs must be present and relatively equivalent for the stool to function properly.
The employee engagement model
It’s important to understand that employee engagement isn’t binary—it’s not yes/no or on/off. Rather, there are levels of employee engagement. It is helpful to think of employee engagement in terms of a continuum:
- Captive (disgruntled & toxic) – employees do not feel that the company provides for their basic physical, economic and psychological needs.
- Basic (security & equity) – employees feel that the company provides for their basic physical, economic and psychological needs.
- Enabled (achievement & esteem) – employees feel challenged and capable of doing their work well, and they feel valued for their efforts.
- Connected (relationship & loyalty) – employees have a strong affiliation with their manager, and camaraderie with their coworkers.
- Engaged (identity & passion) – employees feel like they are a trusted, integral part of a winning company with a compelling vision.
Companies must be vigilant in measuring employee engagement to monitor movement along this continuum—both positive movement and backsliding.
Whether you are an individual contributor, mid-level manager or senior executive, you play a vital role in creating an environment conducive to engagement—not the least of which is ensuring that you yourself are engaged. Challenge yourself and your organization by asking hard questions to ensure that the required conditions (the “Holy Trinity”) are present. Lastly, never allow complacency to set in. There’s always room for improvement!