The Two Sides of Employee Engagement

TwoSidesofEE

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Sean Graber for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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Each year, companies are spending nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars in an effort to improve employee engagement — yet you’ll get wildly inconsistent answers if you ask managers what that means.

Academics, consultants, and leaders have been grappling with that question for decades. Their working definitions range from the simple (“discretionary effort”) to the mind-bending (“complex nomological network encompassing trait, state, and behavioral constructs”).

That murkiness is a problem, because there are still signs that engagement — whatever it is — needs to be managed. In a Gallup survey, for instance, organizations whose employees reported high engagement had 25% to 65% less attrition than their peers (depending on whether they were traditionally low- or high-turnover organizations). They also received higher marks in productivity and customer satisfaction. So defining engagement more clearly isn’t just a philosophical exercise. It has bottom-line implications.

It takes a careful mix of mission, management, and culture.

For the most part, companies oversimplify things by viewing personal satisfaction as a proxy for engagement. As a result, they miss key behavioral signals. What use are Mary’s positive thoughts about her manager, for example, if she is not giving her maximum effort at work every day? Other companies use people analytics to examine employees’ behaviors and organizational performance but then fail to take individuals’ perceptions into account. John may be interacting with clients outside work, but is he happy doing so, or is he burned out and miserable?

It’s critical to look at all these factors — employees’ perceptions and behaviors, and their effect on company performance — to figure out which levers to pull to engage the individuals who work for you. The levers that matter to Mary won’t be the same as those that matter to John.

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This holistic approach to understanding engagement will yield more-detailed insights into what makes people stick around and do their best work. Instead of viewing engagement in terms of low, medium, and high, organizations will be able to understand how employees perceive them, how that perception relates to their behavior, and in aggregate, how those factors drive bottom-line performance. If organizations don’t dig deep like this, they risk misunderstanding their employees and missing out on all the benefits of high engagement.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Sean Graber is cofounder and CEO of Virtuali, a training firm that helps companies develop and engage Millennial leaders.

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