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Understanding the Contributors to Employee Engagement

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The May 2007 issue of HBR gives us a broader view of employee engagement and defines some of the contributors for it.  Not surprisingly, employee engagement is not made up of one huge event that makes the employee committed to work, company and co-workers.  Instead, each workday event has marginal immediate and downstream effects on engagement.  The aggregated and cumulative workday events effect downstream long term engagement.   ((Amabile, Teresa and Kramer, Steven, May 2007.  “Inner Work Life.”  HBR May 2007, Pgs 72-83))

It’s pretty common sensical that an ongoing stream of poor work experiences will eventually erode any goodwill and engagement an employee has for the job or company.  And we all know that this eventually turns into turnover, lower productivity and higher costs, eventually impacting the profitability of the organization.  However, I’ve talked about engagement before as the ability of an organization to provide “cool work” and this simply isn’t enough.  The brand may be at the core of our philosophy around employee engagement, but it’s really the daily actions that solidify the brand.

In effect, people can be engaged in the long term, but still have bad days.  When people are having good days, they are found to be more productive.   So the question is to understand how you can create a continuous stream of good days?  Amabile and Kramer give us two good ideas of how to increase those good days.  First, enable progress, and second, manage with a human touch.   ((Ibid))

The first idea, enabling progress, really comes to the core of what I’ve always thought of as a key indicator of engagement.  We must love our work.  However, a corollary idea to that is that if we love our work, we must also feel like we’re making progress in it.  Good days consist of progress.  From the management perspective of having a steady stream of good days, this means providing clearly articulated goals and objectives.  Nothing kills a producer more than finding out after the fact that he/she has been spinning wheels on something that actually wasn’t important.  Second, this means that once the manager has articulated a direction, priorities and deadlines, allow your talent to stick to the course.  If your continuously re-prioritize or interrupt work for other tasks, you are continuously devaluing the work they are performing.  The bottom line is that if management expects your talent to love their work, management needs to demonstrate it’s importance.

Second is managing with a human touch.  This is obvious, but we all continuously see how bad managers manage tasks, or manage with some degree of cruelty.  In the end, some portion of engagement also consists of community, and management style should reflect that.  At the end of the day, we need to realize that every action our managers and leaders take influences employee engagement.  This simply becomes part of culture and brand.

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6 responses to “Understanding the Contributors to Employee Engagement”

  1. Now I do not intend to suggest that we as individuals yield our own responsibility to define, nurture and grow our own careers but for those of us who are managers it can’t hurt to check in and see if we could be doing more.Hereis a quick article that talks about employee engagement and how “managing with a human touch” is a necessary ingredient for that to happen.  I also recently read Three signs of a miserable job

  2. Wally Bock Avatar

    Great post. Many times the human touch and progress go together. The person in charge has two jobs: accomplishing the mission and caring for the people. A large part of the human touch comes under caring for people when we help them grow and develop.

  3. Romuald Avatar

    If your continuously re-prioritize or interrupt work for other tasks, you are continuously devaluing the work they are performing.

    In today’s economy, short-term has won over long-term. In many companies I know of, people plan for the next 3 to 6 months, not further.
    One of the consequences, is that any activity that is performed needs to provide value within the next 3 months and it is the job of the managers to make sure that the activities that are performed have the higher ROI.
    Needless to say, with a 3-month-only perspective the ROI of each individual activity is 1)lower and 2) extremely variable. Thus managers got to a point where it becomes their job to shuffle and reshuffle priorities in short timeframes.

    Of course, I am not saying this is a good thing. My job is about strategies, so long-term view. But this is the business environment we are currently evolving in.

    PS: Since we can use tags, it would be good either to have a preview button or to be able to edit our comments.

  4. systematicHR Avatar

    Thanks guys.

    1) caring for people = engagement = productivity = mission?
    2) what ever happened to the 5 year plan. It is also my experience that quarterly plans are everywhere.
    3) comments are editable now.

  5. Scot Herrick Avatar

    It not only needs to be clearly articulated goals and objectives, but there must be a way that the person can independently measure that the work they are doing is making progress. It can’t just be a goal that is way out there or an objective for a team. A person needs to be able to measure how they are doing every week.

    While I agree that a person needs to love their work, I’d submit that it is exceptionally difficult to implement that concept when corporations continually reorganize themselves (rightly or wrongly). I call it the “3% unemployment and 75% corporate churn” effect in that one can’t get comfortable working in a position long enough before the whole job world changes for the individual — whether you love the work or not. It’s a tough one.

  6. Rob Robson Avatar

    Good post. You are right, but at the same time, without a clear, guiding framework you can only be partly right.

    Reversal Theory is a framework with 30 years of research and application in organisations, health, psychotherapy and counselling, sport and many other spheres. It is radical in that its core proposition is that people are inconsistent, even paradoxical and it helps to explain these paradoxes (for example being cruel to be kind).

    The theory suggests that we have 8 core needs or values. These are:

    Fitting In
    Personal Power
    Support from Others
    Empowering Others
    Care for Others

    My first real point is that too often definitions or measures of “engagement” simply ignore important motivations – potential sources of satisfaction. Most often, engagement is assumed to hinge around achievement (direction, progress, seeing the bigger picture), enjoyment (fun, excitement, surroundings) and personal power (including learning and competence) – and often it is but by not measuring anything else most measures simply cut important things out of the picture. For example, the satisfaction gained from friendship (sometimes included), from making a customer really happy, from coaching or mentoring, or from generating new ideas.

    The second thing is that “engagement” is generally considered to be greater than simply being happy or enthusiastic, but committed to the organisation. I don’t think that is often very well measured. What we do is ask employees what is important to them, and what they get; and ask managers what is important to the organisation, and what the employees get – across all 8 values/needs. This means that we can find sources of

    Value Conflict: Do managers and employees agree on what is important?

    Employee Frustration: Are employees frustrated because of the difference between what they want and what they are getting?

    Organisational Strain: Do managers believe that the motives important to organisational success are being satisfied in employees?

    Delivery Conflict: Do managers and employees agree on what motivational needs are being met?

    Obviously this is a number of concepts, but if you really want to get into the drivers of engagement and actually be able to do something I think you need to be able to get into this sort of complexity. In my opinion, your average employee engagement survey just doesn’t cut it.

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