Esther Smith: Employee engagement – a good place to start

Wellbeing

Esther Smith defines employee engagement as the ‘emotional commitment the employee has to its organisation and its goals’. As engagement manager at UK Power Networks, Esther discusses what contributes to an effective engagement strategy.

Recent research has shown that engaged workforces deliver 33 percent higher profits, with 44 percent higher staff retention. The increase in research, thought leadership and general focus in employee engagement has meant that even the most cynical captains of industry are beginning to see that employee engagement isn’t all group hugs and kumbaya, and that there is something in having highly engaged employees that delivers real profit. So in search of bang for their buck, more and more companies are setting out to achieve the holy grail of top engagement scores.

The one problem with this recent surge of attention employee engagement has received is the subsequent dilution of its definition. With many credible bodies and organisations weighing in with their theories of what it is and how to achieve it, it can be easy to be bamboozled by terminology and endless so-called drivers. Engage for Success have four key drivers. Towers Watson claim 5 key drivers. Best Companies poset 8 as part of their survey methodology. Kevin Kruse has four; a different four to Engage for Success. And so it goes on.

So if you, as an HR professional, have been tasked with writing an employee engagement strategy, or are simply beginning the journey to improve levels of employee engagement, where on earth do you start when you can’t pin down the darned concept.

The definition that works every time for me is this: Employee engagement is the emotional commitment the employee has to the organisation and its goals. This emotional commitment means that engaged employees actually care about their work and are invested in the company’s success, so much so that they will give discretionary effort. The emotional commitment also means employees are less likely to be tempted to jump ship for a pay rise. What this definition wisely omits is any method of obtaining this highly prized emotional commitment, which will be unique to each person and to each organisation. This ambiguity is what has given rise to such a confusing array of different key drivers and definitions. There is no simple abracadabra for an emotionally committed workforce or person. In the same way that relationships can be complicated, so can our relationships with our employers. Individual people will have their own individual priorities and conditions that they need in order to feel engaged enough to give discretionary effort.

In the face of an organisational-wide problem however, it can become all too easy to generalise. I’ve seen companies try all manner of things in the name of employee engagement. From charity events and employee volunteering to lunches with leaders, and I’ve even run a workplace choir! All these things can be good to do, but if we are looking for maximum value-add, are they the best use of our time?

Possibly not.

Gallup say that 70 percent of how engaged a person is at work is attributed to their line manager. Have you ever walked into your dream job only to discover that your manager is a nightmare and suddenly you can’t get out of there fast enough? I’ve certainly been there. But I’ve also been in roles or companies that haven’t initially excited me, but found myself with real fulfilment because I’ve had a manager that is a pleasure to work for; one that has given me autonomy, the right support and good development opportunities.

So with a common denominator of all purported key drivers being the line manager or factors the line manager can influence, and research attributing a 70 percent weighting to it, then it seems obvious; middle managers are a business’ secret weapon! It makes sense to focus time and effort here with good old-fashioned business partnering and coaching.

So let’s get practical.
Kevin Kruse (2016) has whittled employee engagement research down to four triggers that pack a punch when fired in unison.
1- Communication – do team members feel that there is frequent and consistent two-way communication?
2- Growth and development – do team members feel that they are learning new things and advancing their career?
3- Recognition and appreciation – do team members feel appreciated and that their ideas count?
4- Trust and confidence – is there mutual trust between team members and managers and do team members have confidence in their organisations future?

In the same way that they can trigger engagement, line managers need to understand that a lack thereof will equally have the potential to snuff the spark of engagement and have a previously happy employee running vengefully to indeed.com. The most common reasons for people leaving an organisation are often cited as lack of development opportunities or lack of recognition. Think about why you left your last organisation?

It’s also high time that line managers understand and embrace the benefits of shifting from “a command and control” style to a more inclusive management philosophy. For some, this will mean changing the habits of a lifetime and it won’t come naturally. These managers will need the perfect balance of support and challenge to get them to where they need to be.

So whatever drivers you choose to build your strategy around, whatever your objectives, line managers could influence its success by up to 70 percent. So yes, your workplace choirs might help break silos, and your CEO breakfasts might do much to facilitate employee voice and help your valued front-line employees feel heard, but your line managers are the ones who need your time and attention. With so much at stake, business partnering has never been so relevant.

About Esther Smith

Esther Smith is the employee engagement manager for UK Power Networks.

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