5 New Ways to Think About Employee Engagement

employee engagement

Feeling confident about the engagement level of your employees or team? Certain that job satisfaction metrics tell you what you need to know? Pause and take a fresh look. The fact is, job satisfaction may only be telling you part of the story—and you could be missing crucial indications about employee engagement.

Common Obstacles to Engaging Employees

Changing demographics

“The workplace is changing, and engagement strategies are changing along with it,” writes John O’Brien, vice president of the Employee Performance Group at BI World. “Anyone involved in employee engagement knows that conventional wisdom has been turned on its head by a newly plugged-in and charged-up generation of workers.” As a manager or executive team member, it’s your responsibility to keep pace—and find out what your employees want today.

One obvious catalyst is the movement of Millennials into the workforce. “Research suggests that they [Millennials] are driven by open communication, a great work culture, involvement with causes, and achieving purpose and fulfillment,” writes Keshila Shannon, Vice President of Marketing at 15Five. “Despite the flack they receive from older generations, millennials are enthusiastic to learn, and thrive in collaborative work environments that value psychological safety.”

Shifting value systems

Demographic changes aren’t the only tectonic shift. More-than-adequate engagement also comes with an initial investment.

“Implementing workplace policies that benefit workers and help boost employee retention is not simply a ‘nice’ thing for businesses to do for their employees,” write Heather Boushey and Sarah Jane Glynn for the Center for American Progress. There’s a significant return when you invest in talent. “Maintaining a stable workforce by reducing employee turnover through better benefits and flexible workplace policies makes good business sense, as it can result in significant cost savings to employers.”

The problem is that too many organizations believe employee engagement simply is a new term to describe job satisfaction. As a result, they use old metrics and KPIs to track satisfaction and then, unfortunately, draw misguided conclusions from those numbers.

In the MIT Sloan Management Review, V. Kumar and Anita Pansari write employee engagement isn’t simply job satisfaction. Instead, it’s a “multidimensional construct that comprises all of the different facets of the attitudes and behaviors of employees toward the organization.” Engagement comprises five distinct elements of the employee experience:

  • Satisfaction
  • Identification
  • Commitment
  • Loyalty
  • Performance

All of these categories need to be carefully evaluated when you measure the impact of your engagement efforts.

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How to Measure Employee Engagement

Understanding this broader definition of engagement suggests that managers and team leaders need to rethink their approaches to the challenge. Here are some ways to get started.

1. Compensation is no longer the key driver.

Employee-engagement“Competitive compensation and benefits—yawn,” writes Jim Hemmer, Chief Executive Officer of WorkStride. He says the days of attracting and retaining the best people on a good compensation package are long gone—employers need to offer a strong salary and more. The new drivers: autonomy, the ability to make an impact, career development, and flexibility. “Younger employees in particular are looking for experiences rather than just a paycheck,” he says. “They want to grow and learn in their careers and be a part of something they can be proud of.”

2. Set a management behavior baseline.

Employee engagement doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Instead, it’s tied to the examples that are set by supervisors, managers, and the executive leadership team. “A manager’s emotional response is contagious, too, so if the manager is disengaged, disengagement cascades down the team,” write Adam Hickman, a Learning Design Consultant, and Jeremy Pietrocini, a Senior Learning Development Consultant. “In fact, Gallup analytics find that 70% of the variance in workgroup engagement is caused by managers.”

So when you’re evaluating an employee’s level of engagement, look to their manager first and try to identify behavioral patterns. The issue could originate at the leadership level.

3. Align the employee’s role to the company vision.

If employees hear the same mission statement over and over, they can become numb to it. They need to interact with those values directly to develop a sense of ownership—ideally by having a voice in creating the company’s vision or executing it in some capacity. “Employees need to know that they aren’t just showing up every day and putting in their time for no good reason,” writes the team at Sling. “They need to feel part of something larger.”

Show each employee how their position contributes to the company vision and their everyday actions affect a larger goal. Celebrate when your team makes progress toward achieving those objectives.

4. Expand engagement responsibilities beyond the HR office.

Human Resources (HR) employees and non-HR employees often hold very different perspectives about engagement programs in the company. The HR staff might believe their efforts get the job done—but that labor doesn’t always translate into noticeable results team-wide. There’s a simple solution to make sure your employee engagement initiatives are effective: instate a committee that includes HR and non-HR staff to measure the effectiveness of your efforts.

5. Think personal. Your team does.

Communicate and provide feedback every step of the way. Provide a sense of trust. Foster relationships. Make employees feel safe. “By fostering a workplace environment that emphasizes communication, respect for others, and collaboration among workers at all levels, HR professionals can expect higher levels of engagement from their employees,” say the researchers at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Adapting Your Management Strategy to Engage Employees

The issue of employee engagement is bigger and more complex than it first appears. You have to cater your approach to different generations and employees from diverse backgrounds. Instrumental to your success is your ability to evaluate an employee’s value system and incorporate meaningful incentives into your company culture. These developments take time, but the payoff is well worth the effort.

The transformative power of saying thank you—and really meaning it.


About the Author

Michael Geczi is an editor/writer who has worked at The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, The Dallas Morning News, the Associated Press and The Financial Times of Canada. He also is the author of “Futures: The Anti-Inflation Investment,” published by Avon Books, and has been an Adjunct Instructor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.