Engagement, one employee at a time…

A thought-provoking research project conducted in late 2011 provides insight into the sad reality of employee engagement in America. The findings show that  the percentage of disengaged and under-engaged employees has risen from 59% in August 2010, to 65% in February 2011, to 70% in September 2011. What’s more, the poll finds only 8% of the U.S. workforce is fully engaged, approximately one of each twelve employees. Depending on how you see things, this is either dismal news, or indicative of a terrific opportunity for leading organizations to gain a tremendous competitive and financial advantage.

The data cited above comes from a survey conducted by Modern Survey (www.modernsurvey.com) in a white paper from Bruce Campbell, a Senior Consultant at Modern Survey. Of particular note, is the fact that while employees may declare a high levels of job satisfaction, there is no correlation between being satisfied and being engaged. In other words, employees may say they are satisfied with the company, yet be either under-engaged or disengaged from the firm.

This makes sense if you look at the key drivers of employee satisfaction. The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) identifies the five most important factors underpinning employee satisfaction are:

  1. Job security
  2. Employee benefits
  3. Compensation
  4. Opportunities to use skills and abilities, and
  5. Workplace safety

Interestingly, none of the above topics are seen as critical to engaging employees. In February, 2011, a national workforce poll found the five best predictors of engagement are:

  1. I have a high level of confidence in my company’s leadership
  2. My company treats employees well
  3. My company is headed in the right direction
  4. I have a good opportunity for growth in my company
  5. I have confidence in my company’s future

Note the huge gap in variables. While satisfaction stems largely from corporate “hygiene” factors (comp/benefits, safety, security) the aspects most important to securing engagement are far more individualized, looking beyond the “tablestakes” of pay, benefits, job security, safety. Instead, it seems the critical elements of engagement are focused on minimizing unforeseen risk, maximizing personal development, and working in an enlightened cultural environment.

Of companies that were unsuccessful in addressing any of the five engagement drivers above, a whopping 77% of employees were disengaged, with 0% indicating that they were fully engaged. Where companies were successful in addressing 3 of the aspects above, there were on average 26% of employees disengaged, with 7% of employees engaged.  Where companies were firing on all five cylinders, the percent of disengaged employees dropped to 7%, while those employees who are fully engaged rose to 27%.

How does this translate to financial performance? Best Buy, for example, indicates that for every 1/10th of a point increase on a five point scale in employee engagement, annual profits increased by $100,000 per store on average. Gallup estimates that the decreased productivity of disengaged employees costs their employers between $3,000 and $13,000 annually.

The question becomes, “What are you going to do to foster engagement?” While there is no silver bullet, there are practices that will help, and a model for creating and sustaining a heightened level of employee engagement.

First, you have to shift your focus from the “basics” that define workplace satisfaction, to a more individualized (employee-level) approach. If you don’t have a competitive compensation, benefits, training or performance management process in place, you need to get that done. But don’t fall into a trap of believing that doing so is enough.

Open, candid, transparent leadership is one key to how employees build confidence and trust. Employees must understand the mission, the vision, the values, and (most critically) their role in propelling the company forward. Communications are key, and alignment is the goal. If first- and mid-level managers continually second-guess the direction of the firm, it is likely that employees will be confused or disillusioned about the future.

In an environment of economic uncertainty, you want to minimize negative distractions, while keeping a positive outlook in the hearts and minds of your workers. This requires a focus on addressing both professional development as well as recognition for raising the bar in their workplace performance. Feeling appreciated, acknowledged and on an upward track in terms of skills/competencies can do wonders when it comes to engaging your employees.

Providing measurement, by dashboards or scorecards for the individual employee as well as natural workgroups, departments, divisions or corporate entities, is essential. If you can’t tell someone how they are doing against the defined mission, how will they know (or care) if they are doing a good job?

Again, there is no single process that will guarantee future results. The only certainty would seem to be that doing nothing or very little will insure your organization’s continued demise. The historical ‘basics’ won’t get you to where you need to be. Only by creating an employee-centric approach, which emphasizes alignment of personal development with corporate goals and objectives, will you have a chance to move beyond a declining status quo.


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