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Achieving Employee Engagement

By Lesedi Makhurane: member of USB-ED’s faculty, a qualified executive coach, supervisor and teacher, and an experienced consultant in Strategy and Organisational Design.

Effective employee engagement leads to higher productivity, more energised and motivated employees, better collaboration and improved retention, while lowering absenteeism, sick leave and labour relations costs, writes Lesedi Makhurane. In this article, Makhurane highlights four contributing factors to poor employee engagement and offers suggestions on how to overcome these.

For most of the last century employee engagement was not given much currency by leaders and managers. Even Benjamin Graham, writing from a company valuation perspective, had to remove 34 pages of text devoted to quality of management issues from his original 1934 edition of The Intelligent Investor because “managers just didn’t care enough about these issues”.

Over the last 20 or so years, however, this situation has changed. A number of articles have been written about the importance of employee engagement and its indispensable contribution to the bottom line. For instance, a 1990 study by Hunter, Schmidt and Judiesch found that employee output increases with more complex work (project management, strategic analysis), generating up to 48% more productivity. My own study conducted at a South African organisation in 2003 found similar results: the strongest reasons for people to join and stay at their organisations included role challenge, recognition, opportunities for teamwork and collaboration, and variety in their work. Another, by Chiksentmihalyi (1990), found that when people are truly engaged in work that is both challenging and rewarding, they can go into a trance-like state where time seems literally to fly – a state he called “flow”.

Along with challenging work, balanced with emotional recognition, employee engagement is now recognised as the number one factor separating average organisations from excellent ones. In essence, employee engagement is achieved through a psychological contract, where employees are valued for their ideas and contributions. 

In spite of some progress and the consensus among managers regarding its importance, the report card on employee engagement is still not very good. Recently, the Ashridge Business School’s study “Developing the Global Leader of Tomorrow” found that of the 15 skills required of future leaders the top six had a direct bearing on employee engagement, which they express as “connectedness”. These factors included: on-the-job learning, coaching, mentoring, communities of practice, project-based learning and action learning. However, they continued, significant progress still needs to be made on the following factors:

  1. Understanding the gap – the subjective-objective gap
    Why should the subjective-objective gap be better understood? In order to understand better, consider this recent experience I had when coaching a manager to review the performance of his direct report. 

    Part A
    The executive (the manager) gently coaxed the subordinate to the performance review and proceeded to enumerate each target and how he felt the employee had done on each one. Beyond the cursory “Good morning”, at no time did the employee have a real opportunity to speak. After five minutes or so, it became apparent that the employee was uncomfortable. I am sure that the manager detected the discomfort, but he didn’t stop. The atmosphere stiffened. After another minute of this, I couldn’t take any more. I asked the executive if I could “offer some assistance”. Happy to be rescued, the manager agreed.

    Part B 
    I started out by checking with the employee whether she was comfortable, and whether it was all right that I had facilitated the discussion, to which she replied curtly, “Yes”. I then invited her to talk about her performance in her own words, being careful to mention each goal explicitly. Without any further coaxing, she began by putting the period under review in perspective before explaining the intentions behind her goals, the goals themselves, how she thought she had done, and what she thought she needed now. She even rated herself, which left the small task of confirming and/or adjusting her self-rating with her manager’s own assessment. A few other matters were attended to, and she left the session with a smile. Visibly moved afterwards, the executive turned to me and said: “You know, I never really engaged Alice before. I have really learnt something today.”

    What was the difference between the two experiences? In the first experience, the manager led the discussion from the front – as he assumed a “good manager” should – and ended up silencing the employee. As this proceeded, tension increased inversely to attention span and listening. The employee soon disengaged and the manager, aware of the discomfort, began to push harder – akin to being trapped in the tasks of Sisyphus from Greek mythology. Contrast this with part B, where the employee was invited to speak her mind on the matter at hand without interruption, before the manager offered a critique.

    This case illustrates the fragility of employee engagement and how it can either be capitalised upon, or dismantled with equal speed. A closer examination of what transpired in this case is instructive on how leaders and managers can address the subtle yet critical issues that prevent employee engagement, even in those instances where employees do find their work challenging.

  2. The subjective-objective reality and genuine empowerment
    In part A, disempowerment occurred not only because of the style of the manager, but also because the employee was not given an opportunity to share how she interpreted and translated “objective targets” on paper into subjective goals. One lasting assumption in the business world (which has also been imported into the public sector) is that organisational and individual objectives must be described in purely objective terms. Is this incorrect? No! But it is only part of the truth. Besides an objective component, every objective and target also has a subjective element. True empowerment can be attained only if or when internal motivation combines with external targets. This means that employees must be supported to define objectives in their own terms, as doing so allows them to develop strategies to achieve the goals. The idea that business goals, targets and language must, and can, be purely objective means that people cannot contextualise and truly own them, which increases the risk of disengagement. Without this link, employees tend to park their brains and creativity at home, and do just enough to stay out of trouble until they make the decision to leave.

    Though this citation relates to a performance appraisal, this subjective-objective gap extends well beyond interaction among staff. It can also characterise an organisation’s dominant paradigm, approach to the market, and policy ethos. Purely relying on objective language and gauges makes it difficult for organisations to interpret deeply and decode their market realities so that they can be more competitive.

  3. Interdependence and the quality of social relations
    By explaining how she approached her goals, the subordinate demonstrated how she had to work with others to achieve her goals. Often the mistake managers make with staff appraisals is to assume that individuals can achieve targets on their own. In reality there are very few jobs that can be performed in isolation, and they wouldn’t get very far if they did. The work place requires interdependence, although most workplaces do not succeed very well at leveraging it. Marcum and Smith (2008) have shown that only 2% of corporate Americans achieve true interdependence. 

    One way in which leaders can encourage interdependence is by creating conditions that support improved quality of social relations in workplaces. Contrary to what our materialistic lives might suggest, human beings respond most strongly to the quality of social relations – a composite of human needs that includes such factors as attachment, safety, receiving attention and recognition – even at work (Rock, 2010; Brooks, 2012; Mate, 2011). 

  4. Volunteerism and fair process
    To guide managers, typical tools such as climate surveys are useful, but are not at the level required to live by and develop policies. To arrive at the level of awareness and skill now required of managers, leadership development efforts will have to give guidance on how to incorporate human needs considerations into how people converse, treat each other, and collaborate across work teams and divisions. Developing policies that incorporate these aspects would unleash the energy of organisations through trust. Kim and Mauborgne (2005) describe this as fair process, which combines the three elements of engagement, explanation and clarity of expectation. One of the big benefits of such a process is that it would encourage volunteerism and going the extra mile, with little or no coercion necessary.

    Beyond ensuring that work is challenging and fulfilling, organisations, and particularly their leaders, can use true empowerment, interdependence and quality social relations, as well as fair process, to succeed with employee engagement – a challenge that will increasingly extend them in the future. To do so, they will have to search more deeply within themselves, develop stronger facilitation skills, and coerce less. They will also continuously have to work to expand their repertoire of skills beyond traditional areas. Most importantly, they are challenged to develop more contextual capabilities rather than relying on traditional disciplines.

Source: Knowledge Resources:  Human Capital Review

Ashridge Business School & EABIS. Developing the global leader of tomorrow.
Brooks, D. 2012. The social animal. New York: Penguin.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper and Row. 
Hunter, J.E., Schmidt, F.L. & Judiesch, M.K. 1990. Individual differences in output variability as a function of job complexity, Journal of Applied Psychology, 75(1): 28-42.
Kim, W.C. & Mauborgne, R. 2005. Blue ocean strategy, Harvard Business Review, 3 February.
Marcum ?? & Smith ??. 2008. Egomonics: What makes ego our greatest asset or most expensive liability. Reprint edition. Touchstone.
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