Picture this: You come to work on a dreary Monday morning, only to have your spirits uplifted when you see your team members already hard at work. As you take a seat at your office desk, your product manager wheels his chair over and engages in an animated conversation with you. As it turns out, he had spent the entire weekend thinking of a new concept idea for your company's latest product line without being asked to!
As you boot up your laptop to take down some notes of your discussion, you notice that the IT team had run the latest suite of anti-malware tests ahead of schedule! Pleasantly surprised, you stand up and try to look for a member of the IT team in the office to thank them. But they are nowhere to be found, and your gaze falls on the office janitor clearing the trash. Having witnessed his commitment to his work for the last five years, an inexplicable feeling struck you: you had no doubt that he would clear every single rubbish bin in the office even if nobody was watching.
Make no mistake, this is no hypothetical scenario. You’ve probably met some of these gems, whom we call “engaged employees”, over the course of your career. Employee engagement, the emotional commitment that employees possess towards the organisation and its goals, has been the buzzword for some time now and has become increasingly important in today’s unprecedented environment. After all, who wouldn’t want an employee who doesn’t just work for a paycheck or the next promotion, but with the bigger picture in mind?
It has been proven and rightly so that engaged employees are more productive. Did you know that according to research from the Corporate Executive Board (CEB), employees who are more engaged actually put in 57% more work effort than employees who are disengaged? Do not confuse this with running a sweatshop, however. These engaged employees are voluntarily contributing to their organisation’s success.
The key differentiator between engaged and disengaged employees is that the former category will go the extra mile to define and shape the role that is given to them. In contrast, disengaged employees tend to barely scratch the boundaries of their assigned role. Engaged employees will also step up to become the positive voice for their organisation when the situation calls for it. Although not very quantifiable, it is still a good point to take note of if you are looking for people to champion your organisation’s cause. This category of employees also experiences higher retention rates and the benefits that emerge as a result.
I believe that employee engagement does not happen automatically. The only way that an employee can be automatically engaged is often hinged upon the organisation’s brand or, its strong purpose. Even then, this utopia seldom exists. Or, even if it exists, it is short-lived. This is because the needs of the organisation evolve as frequently as the needs of the individual. On occasions, when the organizational direction aligns with the employee’s professional goals, magic or resonance happens. But once the two are out of sync, dissonance sets in, and people start leaving or feeling disengaged. As the tenure in the organization increases, in most cases, the degree of engagement tends to wane or, some disillusionment tends to creep in. This is exactly why even the best of employers have some natural attrition.
This is where most leaders should start making an effort to engage their employees. But, not all employees can be engaged. If I were to use the employee net promoter (eNPS) concept to illustrate this situation, it can be broken down into three distinct parts. Upfront, you have a bunch of extremely engaged employees, then you have a bunch of people on the fence who can either be engaged or disengaged depending on the context, and finally, the last group which is entirely disengaged.
There are only two good scenarios in my opinion: the first scenario is that you focus on retaining those who are engaged. The second one is that you convert those employees who are on the fence to becoming more engaged. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely to bring those who are totally disengaged into the neutral or engaged zone.
There are two key attributes a leader needs to have to successfully engage his or her employees. Firstly, you need to be able to iterate, to learn and to adapt. Managerial practices that were relevant yesterday may not be relevant going forward. An iterative approach will help you understand and appreciate what’s working with your team members and what’s not.
Secondly, leading by influence has become increasingly important, particularly with Generations Y and Z joining the workforce. Your employees will want to understand the rationale behind the decisions made. Rather than deciding unilaterally, every time there is a critical decision to be made, take a step back, think, and put certain options in place so that your employees potentially end up making the right choices. Nobody likes it when a decision is shoved down their throats. Give your employees the freedom to choose from certain options and they’ll be more engaged. Leverage the power of ‘choice architecture’.
Firstly, heighten employee engagement through improving your team’s dynamics. Help your team members to settle into their work environment, from welcoming them on the first day of work to involving them in the day-to-day decision-making on aspects impacting their work and success in the organisation. Today’s teams are multi-functional, multicultural and multi-geographic. Hence, it becomes vital for you to ensure that your team remains a cohesive whole.
Secondly, ensure fairness and transparency. It is not the fairness of the decision that you take but the perception of fairness of the decision that matters the most. A case-in-point is the recent communique from Airbnb's Chief Executive Officer on his decision to lay off 25% of the workforce due to COVID-19. While that email may not have addressed specific questions about his decision, at least there was an intent on the leader’s part to share the rationale behind that decision. This was probably why it created a lot of positive buzz despite the news itself being negative.
Thirdly, provide regular and comprehensive feedback to your employees. Regardless of what the formal feedback cycle is, I feel that feedback on the go is the most valuable gift that a manager can pass on to the employee. Imagine the irony when one of your employees is looking to be promoted but ends up being placed on a performance improvement plan! Such situations exist because the feedback was not actionable, not specific, or was never given.
Lastly, do not shirk off your responsibility as a leader by claiming that employees need to own and take charge of their own careers. While encouraging employees to own their career is the right thing to do, it is equally important to share perspectives and to show your employees the possible career paths that they can explore. As a manager, your intent and support for your employee’s career shows how much of your skin is in the game.
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Former HR Director | HR Business Partner Leader - E-commerce, APAC
VMware | TikTok