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Getting Employee Engagement Right

Updated: Jul 24, 2020

In the movie Horrible Bosses, three dedicated employees are so tormented by their unethical bosses that they decide to bump them off. In real life, even the worst bosses may not be as horrible as reel bosses, and harangued employees may go so far as visualizing their managers held within medieval instruments of torture. However, they will quit, sooner rather than later.

Moreover, if the employees in question are millennials, they are likely to bid adieu within a year, reveals Gallup. Their study How Millennials Want to Work and Live explains that this generation of workers – currently the largest in the workforce – is dissatisfied with their managers’ efforts in ensuring their professional and personal well-being.

  • 71% of millennials are disengaged at work

  • Only 21% of employees meet managers every week

  • Just 19% receive feedback; 17% say it’s meaningful

  • 28% say their managers highlight their strengths

Gallup also finds that engaged managers are more likely to have engaged employees. Whether you’re leading a team or a senior-level decision-maker, a deep dive into employee engagement is worth the effort. Here are some thoughts to get you started.

Engagement starts at the top

Employees want to be proactively engaged, and their bosses are best positioned to lead engagement. In today’s dynamic business environment where the workforce is expected to be agile and adaptive, leaders must engage managers who are key stakeholders in rallying employees around common goals and change initiatives. The expectation, rightly, is that managers will provide the training, tools and ways forward to make big leaps. Case in point: surveys show that 90% of companies that have successfully scaled artificial intelligence (AI) spent as much on technology as on activities that encouraged adoption, such as training and communication.

Managers are accountable for outcomes

The primary responsibility of managers is to shepherd their teams towards a shared mission. KPIs have a purpose – to understand team performance and leadership influence. If projects fail or customer satisfaction plunges, a contributing may relate to the management of that employee. Leadership effectiveness is an important metric suggesting how deliberate efforts from managers have contributed to team performance and business outcomes thereof.

Meet basic engagement requirements

Disenchantment with the company can set in early or with time. Nobody wants to work for a boss who doesn’t set expectations, define job responsibilities clearly, involve in goal-setting and isn’t around to provide support or assistance. These are basic engagement requirements that inspire commitment and discretionary effort. As managers build trust and employees prove their capabilities, engagement will naturally evolve to learning about professional aspirations to work towards career paths, identifying new learning and development needs, and collaborating on broader organisational priorities.

Take a decisive and straightforward approach to performance management

Effective performance management systems define agreed behaviours and rules of engagement that apply to everyone equally. They convey expectations and goals unambiguously, and have a simple system for measuring performance at the team and individual employee level.

After gaining consensus around the performance evaluation system, managers have the crucial task of providing feedback and coaching. There are varying opinions on what constitutes good feedback, but the widely-accepted maxim is that constructive feedforward delivered close to the event and backed by actionable improvement tips is most likely to motivate performance improvement. As much as possible, managers should use feedforward to frame mistakes as opportunities to learn, receive coaching and do better the next time. This approach to corrective action will make managers appear non-judgmental, and disincline employees from reacting emotionally to feedback.

Pursuing engagement for the sake of it is counterproductive

Engagement should come from the top and everyone should feel cared for. Approaches to change should be open and dynamic rather than instructional and should involve senior leadership. Creating engagement calls for the involvement of the most senior levels of management: what are the different ways in which leadership can reward employees’ efforts? What cultural barriers might be impeding engagement? Are employees feeling held back by bosses who don’t encourage cross-pollination of ideas between teams or project a highly risk-averse attitude? Answers to these questions will inform engagement tactics and performance management meaningfully.

As Richard Branson says, "Take care of your employees and they will take care of your business. It's as simple as that."

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