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Employee Engagement – Short-interval Controls, an Untapped Solution

Recent surveys found that 70 to 80% of business leaders rate employee engagement as an urgent or important priority.  Employee engagement programs, and their improvement in discretionary employee performance and retention, are creating competitive advantages for those corporations applying them successfully. Many CEO’s see engagement as the single most important factor affecting corporate futures. Yet, current approaches fail to leverage what is known to be the single, highest factor affecting employee engagement: the line supervisor.


Employee engagement is not new. A recent article in Forbes magazine said that, “the concepts of ‘employee engagement’ have been with us for many years. More than 30 years ago Gallup and other companies pioneered the concept of the ‘engagement survey’. The roots of these surveys started in the late 1800s with Fredrick Taylor, the pioneering industrial engineer, studying how people’s attitude impacted their productivity in the steel industry.”

The Journal of Managerial Psychology sees engagement as based in Social Exchange Theory (SET). “SET is one of the most influential conceptual paradigms in organizational behavior. It states that obligations are generated through a series of interactions between parties in a state of reciprocal interdependence.” In other words, the employer and the employed enter into an exchange of valuables, the employee’s behavior and the employer’s “compensation”.

However, money is not the key motivator once compensation meets basic needs (per Maslow’s hierarchy). So, what then can companies do to improve engagement? The answer lies in additional employer organization behaviors and activities that become part of the company’s “contribution” in SET.

Employee Engagement Programs.

Programs begin with annual surveys and then prescribe “levers” the company can apply to improve engagement. The list of levers or potential activities to improve employee engagement, and therefore retention and productivity, is quite large. At well over 300, they can be grouped in categories. These include corporate work-life policies (flextime, day care), management skills (emotional intelligence, coaching and counseling), employee development (onboarding, flexible career-pathing), and work environment (employee collaboration, open work areas).

While the research on the effectiveness of all 300 levers is ongoing, academic and practitioner studies alike have found two fundamentals that clearly work: Perceived Supervisory Support (PSS) and Perceived Organizational Support (POS). These have the highest direct influence of all levers on engagement. PSS is determined by the actions of the individual, whom the employee sees as their supervisor.  POS is determined by management in general, solving operating problems, holding people accountable, and clarifying roles and responsibilities.

The Biggest Lever.

Gallup has studied performance at hundreds of companies. Measured the engagement of 27 million employees and more than 2.5 million work units over the past three decades.

Gallup’s findings: managers, PSS mentioned above, account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement. Gallup goes on to estimate an annual cost in lost U.S. productivity of more than $450 billion.

Taking engagement a step further, the Forbes article said that, “The change we need to make is to redefine engagement beyond an ‘annual HR measure’ to a continuous, holistic part of an entire business strategy. Engagement must go deeper than an annual survey and subsequent responses (levers). It should be integrated into the continuous, ongoing business processes that employees work with each day.”

So, managers, anyone who supervises employees, have a direct empirical effect on employee engagement, and, therefore productivity and retention. The old saying that people join a company but leave a boss still holds true. And, line supervisors, as a group, have more direct contact with the employee population than any other management level.  In effect, they are the front line of employee engagement. And, their behaviors should be integrated into the continuous, ongoing business processes that employees work with each day.

Management Behaviors and Training.

But what is it that supervisors do that has this affect? The actions occur throughout work management processes. I do not mean the computer system. I mean the sequence of supervisory behaviors that gets work done. This is the non-computer activity from setting goals, coaching and counseling through problem solving.  

Work management process describes the flow of activities initiating, performing and completing the company’s work. Typical process documentation, developed by system programmers, identifies the steps, decisions and data generated/captured as work progresses. Less attention is given to describing the actions supervisors should take during those same steps, how line management interacts with the work force to get work done. These actions (behaviors) include:

·       Regular, clear setting of expectations.

·       One-on-one follow up with employees throughout the week/day.

·       Regular review of organizational, unit and individual performance.

·       Recognition of achievement (including low performers!).

·       Coaching where corrective action is needed.

·       Creating opportunities for employees to learn, grow.

·       Involving employees in process problem solving.

This is all basic management. This is not new. But there are few organizations, if any, that have addressed employee engagement by integrating work management and basic management training.

The more typical situation is that engagement is associated with organizational “levers”, not daily management behaviors.  In separate efforts, supervisors are trained in work management to use the computer, but not what actions then to take outside the computer. Or they are trained in behavioral management (e.g., an Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence model) without specifying when and where in the process to use it live. There are few organizations that have integrated work management with management training. And less that tie it together with employee engagement.

The Missing Lever.

The result is a huge opportunity for companies to effect real, significant improvement in employee engagement and productivity. Structure and integrate management behaviors with work management processes. Implement the resulting work management processes with the results-proven focus on line supervisors. Participating companies will regain their share of the $450 billion that Gallup estimates in lost productivity.


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