Employee Engagement Practices In The Workplace Management Essay

I read a Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) article titled “Most Workers Only Moderately Engaged in Jobs”1. While what this article said didn’t surprise me, I was bothered by it. The article pointed out that managers are mostly at fault for the lack of more significant employee engagement. According to a report by Towers Perrin HR Services titled “Winning Strategies for a Global Workforce”, only 14% of global workers are highly engaged in their jobs. In the United States, the figure is 21%. Thus, few employees are consistently giving a complete effort2. An article that appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch cited a survey conducted by AOL in which 2,700 employees indicated that they wasted two hours of each eight-hour day.3

The essence of employee engagement is to provide a positive environment where employees are free to contribute, and desire to contribute, more of their energy, efforts and thought processes in ways that significantly and favorably impact the goals of the organization. The Towers Perrin report further stated that companies who choose to invest time and attention in leadership, management, career development, and relevant rewards would eventually be viewed as employers of choice and more successfully engage their workers. Obviously, such investment doesn’t come easy. But ask yourself what it is worth to significantly elevate employee engagement in your organization.

A big factor in the evolution of management styles in the United States has been the move away from manual labor. We have experienced a huge rise in the service industry and the arrival of the information age. People, who engage other people on behalf of their employer, as employees are required to do in many service jobs, are expected to be courteous and pleasant to others. How can any leader or manager expect such behavior from subordinates without, in turn, treating subordinates well?

In addition, it doesn’t make sense to treat subordinates poorly and expect them to become intrinsically motivated. However, creating intrinsic motivation requires something different than merely a lack of negative treatment. The key issue becomes one of how to inspire people to provide positive and productive engagement toward their organization.

Negative and oppressive leadership styles have flourished for centuries in the workplace. During the twentieth century, more studies focused on management as a behavioral science and, as a result, better workplace environments gradually evolved. While behavioral science is not exact, we have learned that valuing the talents of subordinates reaps better results. By ensuring that subordinates know we appreciate their thoughts, ideas, skills and knowledge, we communicate a feeling of respect and importance. In doing so, it is not necessary to hand over the reigns of authority or decision-making power. Yet situational leadership theory might indicate that, at times, a participation in decisions by group members yields the optimal outcome.

Many employers think if they want positive employee engagement, then all they have to do is pay higher wages. In other words, if an organization wants higher dedication from employees, all it has to do is give workers more money. However, some studies have shown this is not true.

Herzberg’s hygiene motivator theory suggests that the absence of certain elements in the workplace will serve to de-motivate employees, but the presence of these same elements does not serve to motivate employees in the workplace4. Therefore, Herzberg described particular elements as “hygiene” elements, as opposed to true motivators. These hygiene elements include pay, security, status, peer relationships, subordinate and supervisor relationships, company policy and administration, work conditions, and supervision. In other words, according to Herzberg’s theory, the hygiene factors only affect job dissatisfaction but do not improve job satisfaction. These hygiene factors will not create positive motivation or ways to generate positive employee engagement.

Herzberg’s theory goes on to name true motivating factors as achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, advancement, and opportunities for growth. These are the factors that lead to extreme job satisfaction. Herzberg argues that a manager’s attention must shift away from hygiene factors and towards motivator/satisfier factors.5

I believe that the Herzberg theory of what constitutes “true” motivators not only offers an excellent model to improve productivity, but also that leaders, managers and supervisors can apply this theory to increase employee engagement and commitment. For example, most of us as managers, often fail to give enough recognition to those whose work lead to our own success. If we would do a better job of mentoring, we ultimately provide an opportunity for subordinates to grow in their jobs. To the extent that we delegate well, we offer an increase in responsibility to subordinates. This is very likely to elicit stronger employee engagement. If we can improve upon how well we foster a sense of growth for individuals we lead, we are likely to improve levels of employee commitment. If we can find ways to enrich the jobs of those we lead, we will see more satisfied employees who increase their levels of engagement and contribution.

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What happens when we have true employee engagement? Each employee has accepted a specific challenge and responds in a favorable way towards achieving a goal. There is a willingness to help the organization achieve its goals. The organizational goal has also become a personal goal for the engaged employee. This blending of goals is what drives successful outcomes because the employee truly cares about attainment of a favorable result.

If you think of yourself as an engaged employee, what other thoughts or feelings might accompany that? You are focused not only on your task, but also on the task’s expected outcomes and measurements. You are attempting to do the “right thing” in order to attain the goal or desired result. It probably feels good that the goal you have is the same one the employer organization desires. If you find there is an obstacle in the way of goal attainment, you know that the organization probably wants to help you overcome the obstacle. So it is “ok” to ask for help. The organization isn’t expending energy to find whom to blame, but rather is expending energy to help you succeed. It’s a win-win situation.

An individual employee can renew his or her commitment toward becoming a more engaged performer. But it will be difficult to stay “pumped up” for any length of time, if that employee notices that a high level of engagement is not prevalent around him or her. Since employees are probably part of a team–and teams make up an organization–isn’t it crucial that all employees get truly engaged in their work and stays that way?

If you are an engaged employee, what is the mindset of your immediate supervisor? He or she also must stay focused on win-win outcomes. It isn’t in his or her best interest to focus on blame or punishment. Rather, good supervisors are also good coaches. It works this way all throughout the organization.

A prime example of an organization that engages employees is Build-A-Bear workshops. Maxine Clark, started this company in 1997. I interviewed Maxine to understand firsthand her views regarding employee engagement.6 Build-A-Bear has enjoyed exceptional growth and success. It is an enjoyable environment with considerable employee engagement. If you visit one of the Build-A-Bear stores, you will find highly engaged employees helping customers build a special stuffed bear dressed in an outfit of the customer’s choosing. Maxine told me they are in business to “sell smiles.” Even if you leave without a purchase, you are likely to come away with a smile. Caring employees, who are very engaged in their work, have a lot to do with the visitors who walk away with a smile. It’s a better experience than just visiting a toy store and this positive experience is largely the result of employees who are highly engaged in their jobs. Ms. Clark indicated that “these engaged employees are listening to better ways to serve customer wants and desires, or better ways of doing things.”

I asked Ms. Clark if the same concepts about employee engagement at Build-A-Bear could be applied in a typical corporate environment. She quickly replied “Absolutely. While the task performed is different, the same principles are applied. It is not based upon the type of job performed.”

Ms. Clark’s thoughts seem to be confirmed in an article published by Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) titled “Keeping Employees Engaged: A Strategic Factor in Motivation, Performance and Retention.”7 In the article, Ms. Nancy Lockwood points out that having employee engagement requires creating a work environment that empowers employees to make decisions that affect their jobs. Drivers of this engagement include work relationships, career opportunities, quality of work life, ability to utilize skills and learn new competencies, direct involvement in contributing to company goals, total rewards, flexibility and being part of the decision making process. Lockwood goes on to say “the advantages of employee engagement are engaged employees who demonstrate commitment to the company.”

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Increased employee engagement will not occur just because management wants it to happen.

First of all, the selection and hiring process can help set the stage for the expectation that this will happen. Realistically, it won’t happen each time an employee is hired, but the quality of selection and hiring is critical.

Let’s assume that good selection of employees is in place. We need to keep people motivated so we can keep goals blended and attained. Obviously, goal attainment creates a sense of pride for both the individual employee and the organization. A few decades ago, when there was a predominance of manual work in the United States, increasing pay by the number of units of work completed was a good idea. We called it piecework and those who did more got more pay. It was pretty easy to measure who did what on a given day and reward them accordingly. Now that manual labor is no longer predominant, different and more complex systems of employee relations are needed for employee motivation and performance improvement.

It is an over-simplification to state that an organization that has good employee relations will also have good employee engagement. This is not always the case. It’s better to have a higher level of employee engagement as the clear goal. It is a crisp definition that will help the organization have improved results. Since high employee engagement creates employees who care about their work at a personal level, higher work quality will likely occur.

The editor of HRO Magazine, Jay Whitehead, was quoted as saying “The missing link between Human Resources and bottom-line results for an organization (revenues, productivity and profits) is employee engagement”. He was referring to a Corporate Leadership Council survey of 50,000 employees that revealed that 43 percent of performance improvements in a work force, can be attributed to improved employee engagement.8

Another Society of Human Resources Management research article entitled “Why Managers Are Crucial to Increasing Engagement” highlights the importance of the managers role in employee engagement.9 In this brief article, Robert E. and Bob Gorman, Jr. tell us that traditional human resource professionals have focused on job satisfaction rather than employee engagement. However, the degree of employee engagement has a clear financial impact. Managers should focus on drivers toward increasing organizational productivity and engaging employees to higher levels. This would include consistent communication, as well as listening for and understanding what is most important in order to increase engagement. HR professionals should assist managers in understanding the expectations and behaviors that foster employee engagement.

We know that in the United States, labor is a seller’s market for the next ten years, largely due to an aging workforce. A Towers Perrin study shows that higher employee engagement results in higher customer satisfaction, lower costs of labor and a favorable impact on the organization’s bottom line10. Towers Perrin has developed an organizational survey for measuring employee engagement.11 It utilizes nine factors that define employee engagement within a given organization. They are listed in descending order:

Senior management has sincere interest in employee’s well being

Company provides challenging work

Employees have appropriate decision-making authority

Company cares a great deal about customer satisfaction

Employees have excellent career opportunities

Company has a reputation as a good employer

Employees work well in teams

Employees have resources needed to perform jobs in a high quality way

Employees have decision-making input

Senior management communicates clear vision for long-term success

These elements appear to relate to the Herzberg Motivator-Hygiene Theory, discussed previously in the article. Together these elements and the Herzberg Theory illustrate how building a positive organizational culture is no accident and can favorably impact engagement and productivity.

Change requires a very positive leadership style and commitment from the top down in order to move and drive the entire organizational culture. Normally, an outsider working with top management is required, especially to elevate employee engagement. Afterwards an occasional re-evaluation and adjustment is necessary. This process can be called “strategic performance management for optimizing employee engagement”. I recommend an outside consultant be utilized to facilitate the organizational intervention and to keep the intervention focused. Internal politics and self-serving agendas within the organization can too often hinder the results. For most organizations, it requires a master architect to help bring the entire employee engagement concept together and become a reality. This architect must have an education and background in organizational design and development. He or she first identifies and defines the puzzle pieces of a specific organization. Then a gap analysis must be completed. This analysis will define the current state of the organization’s culture and dynamics, versus a desired end state.

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There is very likely to be sensitive obstacles to overcome. Often, the obstacles are long-standing employee attitudes and mindsets. Resistance to change is often very hard to overcome. An experienced consultant can help overcome this resistance. Frequent contact and feedback sessions with senior management must occur along the way. If this does not happen, it’s likely some explosive landmine will be tripped that jeopardizes the entire project.

At the start, the consultant has to get an accurate measure of the existing leadership style in the organization. A very useful tool to assess engagement in an organization is a custom-built employee engagement survey. It is different from typical employee opinion surveys, which focus on employee satisfaction. An employee engagement survey quantifies levels of engagement for major groups and subgroups within the organization. From the survey score, action plans can be constructed for the purpose of improving levels of engagement. These targeted actions are usually most effective when created in a participative manner. Usually, the consultant can construct an effective (relatively brief) survey that takes employees only a few minutes to complete. Of course, results must be shared with participants, actions planned and remedial steps taken. If this doesn’t occur, the results are likely to be negative.

Most likely, some project work will be required on the performance management program unique to each organization. It is important that the flow, sequence and timing of specified action steps be mapped out and then followed logically. Again, the consultant’s intervention ensures all steps are working in accordance with the specific plan and supported by top management.

The highest goal of management should be to deliver optimal financial performance with a workforce that is fully engaged. The employee’s willingness to work hard and identify with the company usually will not result from top management cracking a whip; rather, good leadership is the key driver. All managers and supervisors become part of the change process, with the goal being a true cultural modification that heightens employee engagement and improves organizational performance and the bottom line. It should be part of an organization’s continuous improvement process; not a one time event.

In the end, enhanced employee engagement will pay real dividends for the organization. Enhanced employee engagement will favorably impact achievement of the organization’s mission and goals and holds strong promise for helping the organization to retain good employees, build high performance teams, and compete most successfully.

1 Smith, J.J. “Most Workers Only Moderately Engaged In Jobs” Page 2 Society of Human

Resources Global HR Focus Area (April 2006)

2 Towers Perrin “Global Workforce Study 2005, Employee Engagement As a Business Driver”

page 21, Compensation and Benefits Network of Greater St. Louis. 14 March 2006

3 Bauza, Margarita. “Goofing Off” St. Louis Post Dispatch 6 August 2006, page E3.

4 Schermerhorn Jr., James C. Management For Productivity, John Wiley & Sons, 1986, p 216

5 Schermerhorn Jr., James C. Management For Productivity, John Wiley & Sons, 1986, p 217

6 Maxine Clark, personal interview, May 16, 2006 (available at www.hrp-inc.com, link to podcasts)

7 Lockwood, Nancy. “Keeping Employees Engaged: A Strategic Factor in Motivation, Performance

and Retention.” Society of Human Resources Research Translations (May 2006): page 1

8 Whitehead, Jay. “HR Outsourcing and Employee Engagements.” Society of Human Resources

Management Outsourcing News, (July 29, 2006) page 1

9 Gorman, Robert E. and Bob Gorman, Jr. “Why Managers are Critical to Increasing Engagement.”

Society of Human Resource Management Research Translations (May 2006) page 1

10 Towers Perrin page 14

11Towers and Perrin “Rapid Engagement Diagnostic Survey”, Compensation and Benefits Network

of Greater St. Louis, 14 March 2006

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