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The Stewards of Employee Engagement

Employee engagement is increasingly a corporate priority. It has become a CEO-level issue. The payoff is in increased productivity and improved retention.

Surfing the Internet and literature, there is a lot about engagement. One definition of engagement is how “people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performance”. Engagement increases an individual’s attention to and absorption in their work. So an engaged employee is focused and “into” what they are doing.

Academic and practitioner research is looking for causes and cures. The Journal of Managerial Psychology published a University of Toronto study that examined antecedents of engagement and their corresponding consequences. They stated that engagement is 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.”

Various practitioners prescribe “levers” (aka antecedents) the company can apply to improve engagement. Practitioners recognize over 300 levers that include creating a culture of flexibility, providing day-care, and allowing FedEx days (for one day, work on anything you want, with anyone you want, with the only requirement to produce something constructive by end of day).

However, both academics and practioners do recognize a common, overarching “antecedent”. It has been identified and described by Gallup for a long time.

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 two decades.

Gallup’s findings: managers account for 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement. 87 percent of today’s employees are not engaged. Gallup goes on to estimate an annual cost in lost U.S. productivity of more than $450 billion.

So managers, in particular supervisors, have a demonstrable effect on employee engagement and therefore productivity and retention (people join a company but leave a boss). Supervisors have more direct contact with the highest percentage of any organization’s employee population than any other management level. What then should supervisors do to engender engagement in their people? The answer is at least as old as the Gallup research.

There are lots of publications on engagement. One I’ve read that makes the most sense in my experience is Kevin Kruse’s Employee Engagement 2.0: How to Motivate Your Team for High Performance.

The supervisory behaviors that engender employee engagement center on communication. This is a rhythm of communication (an ongoing and predictable process) that builds the relationship between the supervisor and direct reports. There are best practices within this process.

To start, this means MBWA (Management By Walking Around), not closed up in an office nor behind a desk. Set expectations: spend half an hour a week reviewing what needs to happen for the coming week. Clarify and offer support if any help is needed.

Later during the week, follow up with each individual at least daily. Check to see how they’re coming. If they’ve met expectation, give positive reinforcement. If they’ve not met expectation, problem solve. Find what caused the situation and help, rather than reprimand. Later use thirty minutes to review the group’s metrics soliciting problems and solutions with the group.

The big “but” here is that while engagement is rising as the next big thing, the phenomenon is not new nor are the solutions. I started consulting conducting supervisory training. The core was establishing daily and weekly routines to engage employees: communicate, set expectations, follow up, problem solve and coach. This training regularly resulted in 25 percent increases in departmental productivity.

The good news here is that some things don’t change. We are all human and have needs that are ingrained in the species. So as new supervisors step in their role, they will need the same help as always. How best to engage (old term: motivate) your team. The answers are known.


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