Employee engagement has been one of those HR buzzwords that have bounced around now for a number of years. However the research consistently shows many organisations continue to enjoy only poor to average results in survey after survey. As a result, the search for the holy grail of employee satisfaction and engagement continues but the quest may be unrealistic.
… with many industry experts predicting a tidal wave of employee exits now that optimism is returning
There is no shortage of experts prepared to offer up explanations for the engagement malaise. Some of these propose ‘add-ons’ to corporate culture to boost engagement metrics with mixed results. And so, the conundrum persists and continues to frustrate engagement stalwarts. The GFC has recently reignited the debate with many industry experts predicting a tidal wave of employee exits now that optimism is returning; driven by a build up of dissatisfaction arising from a feeling of imprisonment from being hunkered down, waiting out the financial storm.
Why, you may ask, does employee engagement remain an elusive concept? The answer, in part, may lie in the terminology itself. The term ‘work life balance’ and our quest for it has dominated our work psyches for years; and yet the statistics show that, in Australia, we have never worked harder and continue to out-pace most of the developed world. To explain, the word ‘balance’ conjures up a notion of equal proportions of something that in turn implies equal amounts of work and non-work activities. This has no rational basis and indeed is down right unrealistic for many, particularly in a business world where doing ‘more with less’ is continuously sought.
This becomes more problematic when you consider that the lines between work and life have become increasingly more blurred. Through sheer necessity we now blend work with life, for example by making work places a fun place to hang out in and going to the gym either to or from work. Moreover work-life balance has entirely different meanings and applications from one person to another, as by definition we are all individuals.
In the same way terminology may also be partly to blame for misreading formal and informal ‘engagement’ observations. The term engagement implies a binary aspiration – that is we are either engaged or not engaged, when in fact the inputs to so called engagement are complex and dynamic for many in the workplace. Equally, engagement may have entirely different connotations for employees, leaders and organisations. Employees may be engaged with their leader and not the organisation or vice versa. Moreover it may ebb and flow over time for a whole host of reasons. For example, a performance review holds a surprise, a popular leader suddenly departs or a merger or acquisition suddenly throws the balls in the air to name a few.
We are challenging and encouraging exponents of employee engagement to be cautious to not over simplify its levers and impact…
There are so many factors that may impact our feelings of engagement at work, some of which may be work or non-work related. For example our emotions that interfere with our capability to process events rationally can lead us to false conclusions about our perceived value in the organisation and self-efficacy. This can influence our feelings of engagement at that point in time. For example if the boss failed to acknowledge your greeting when you arrived at work may lead you to conclude that the boss is off side with you or even worse doesn’t like you. This could be quite a false or irrational conclusion; when in fact the boss may have some personal or business issue consuming his or her attention to the exclusion of all else, including you, at that moment. Moreover, the health of our psychological contract with our employer will have a direct relationship on the level of workplace engagement. The research shows that our perception of whether the company is delivering on ‘the deal’ promised by the employer is pivotal to our feeling of engagement and satisfaction with the employer.
This can be a murky world for leaders to navigate because perceptions of the reality can vary greatly even with dealing with identical data.
So does this mean that the notion of engagement is so complex and with so many qualitative variables to render it overwhelming to the point of redundancy before we have even fully understood its importance in driving employee satisfaction and individual and overall organisational performance? Definitely not! This blog is not seeking to sideline or discredit the value of engagement, in fact there is already enough research from around the world to suggest it has a strong link to organisational performance. However we are suggesting we challenge and moderate conclusions drawn from engagement data.
We know the workplace is a dynamic living organism that responds to all sorts and forms of inputs and variables that we need to seek to understand. Nor are we suggesting that complex solutions are somehow more valid; quite the contrary. We are however challenging and encouraging exponents of employee engagement to be cautious to not over simplify its levers and impact in the quest to find a rational turn key solution or silver bullet to shape employee behaviour and performance and monitor and guide overall corporate culture.
We need to be cautious of responding to flawed stereotypes and assuming that pandering to these will result in improved performance. Stereotypes are dangerous at the best of times but we have already seen evidence of the problem and inadequacy of leaders relying on generational stereotypes when crafting leadership responses to managing individuals and teams and workplace diversity.
Funky culture-building programs run by external experts cannot replace your leaders connecting with their employees, delivering on the deal and having real and meaningful conversations with their teams and team members. This is a fundamental source of developing real engagement. Changing culture is difficult and takes time and patience combined with careful and deliberate planning for it to be sustained and effective.
May be we should replace the term employee engagement with employee ‘promise of experience’ to foster a broader understanding of our impact on engagement. We have a saying, ‘you get the culture you deserve”. If you have been leading a team for some time and don’t like the team’s behaviours or culture then have a good look at yourself – you created it so changing it will require changing your approach as well as others. Equally, as individuals, we need take ownership of our experiences as much as rely on our leaders to shape and nurture a positive work experience. We are the experts on ourselves and therefore we should know better than anyone else what would optimise our experience and engagement. This sounds simple but simple does not mean easy as in reality some need help to identify the drivers within and codify them in a way that’s useful to career development and achieving career satisfaction. The boss and executive and career coaches are all good sources of assistance. The unmistakable reality is that we need take responsibility for our lives and careers and should not leave it to vagaries of organisational policy and culture.
Employee experiences speak directly to the organisation’s employment brand and delivering purposeful employee experiences is more achievable than a notion of a point in time measure of employee engagement. It is less than realistic to think that, as employers, we can direct engagement en masse by pulling a suite of defined employee levers. We need to think about our organisations as populated by individuals and recognise the changing needs of both parties. Equally, we also need to consider the roles that individuals play in their work teams to get the full the picture, as these may differ from the roles played elsewhere in their lives.
However, the challenge remains of how to respond effectively to individuals en masse. This is where authentic leadership is critical and fundamental to providing employee experiences that really talk to individual needs on a collective basis.
© deliberatepractice 2010