Matt Tenney, Contributor
Creating a work environment where employees can thrive is the most important action a leader can take to spur employee engagement.
This seems like quite a challenge when we consider the less-than-stellar statistics indicating how we are doing on employee engagement in this country. Engaging employees is difficult enough, but when you factor in the high number of disengaged employees, the task seems particularly daunting.
But when crafting employee engagement strategies, leaders may be overlooking their most valuable asset: Engaged employees.
Engaged employees can actually provide the blueprint for strategies that work to improve engagement because they can inspire enthusiasm in other employees and boost engagement. To create engagement strategies that work, we can look at some examples of behaviors and attitudes that engaged employees exhibit that indicate a high level of engagement.
Good examples of employee engagement include employees showing up to work with a sense of purpose, a deep commitment to the organization, dedication to performing well, a collaborative attitude, good communication with co-workers and leaders, and the ability to give and receive feedback positively.
In this article, we will look at why engagement is still such a challenge, what drives it, and some examples and strategies to help you build a team of highly engaged employees.
Engagement in Crisis
Employee engagement really makes a difference because it affects performance, productivity, profits, and is key for business sustainability. It also has a significant impact on employee well-being, how well employees are able to serve customers, and is essential for recruiting and retaining top talent.
As leaders struggle to understand what it takes to engage employees and forge engagement strategies to combat the challenges that lack of engagement and active disengagement can present, it’s important to keep in mind the tremendous impact engagement has on an organization’s chances for success.
Employee engagement can make or break a business because it affects a wide range of factors, including performance, productivity, profits, and business sustainability.
As Gallup recently reported, employee engagement in the U.S. experienced its first annual decline in a decade, dropping to 34% engaged in 2021 from 36% engaged in 2020.
This unfortunate trend continued into the early part of 2022, with only 32% of full- and part-time employees engaged and 17% actively disengaged, an increase of one percentage point from the previous year.
Low engagement and higher disengagement have played a role in the “Great Resignation.”
But, in addition to these workers–who, early on in this trend, were mostly younger, less-tenured employees working predominantly in the retail, food service, and healthcare industries, it is now apparent that older, more tenured employees are increasingly quitting their jobs.
These employees are in higher-paying jobs in the finance, tech, and other knowledge worker industries and claim they are seeking meaning and flexibility in their work now, rather than the more tangible benefits associated with jobs in these industries.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the engagement landscape, and many employees have discovered that their priorities and needs have shifted. Engagement strategies going forward should address this shift.
The Case for Engagement
Employee engagement is the result of a positive, satisfactory relationship between an organization and its employees. Engagement levels are going to be higher when employees feel a strong connection and dedication to an organization’s mission, vision, and core values.
For employee engagement to grow organically, employees’ relationship with their organization must be rooted in trust, loyalty, integrity, and a mutually beneficial system of healthy communication and feedback between leadership and their team.
While it’s clear that employee engagement holds many benefits for employers, including high rates of retention, high performance, increased productivity, and improved profitability, it also provides employees with numerous benefits that inspire loyalty and boost overall job satisfaction.
We know employee engagement has a tremendous impact at the organizational level because it can have a significant effect on an organization’s performance and profitability.
But engagement levels are also key to helping employers identify and address the needs of staff and reveal areas that need improvement in order to foster a high level of employee morale. This feedback can give leadership a better understanding of how to create and foster work environments that help employees thrive and stay engaged.
Drivers of Engagement
There are a variety of factors that can drive or inhibit employee engagement. Determining which areas to focus on to improve engagement will help you craft the right strategies to engage employees in your organization.
Here are some of the drivers of employee engagement that seem to have the greatest impact:
Leaders affect employee engagement the most. A leader’s ability to build authentic relationships with employees can have a significant impact on employee engagement.
Leadership coaching should be a part of this strategy to ensure there is a sound succession plan to fill roles that are vacated so there is no shortage of talent to step into these roles.
Strong leaders who care about employees will be committed to creating a satisfying work environment. Because of this, they will be more likely to engage employees.
Organizational culture is important because it is the primary factor for determining how well an organization executes on every other aspect of its performance. Culture may also be the most important competitive advantage because it is so difficult to copy.
The 2021 Job Seeker Nation Report indicates that, despite the increase in remote work over the course of the pandemic, company culture has remained very important for employees. According to the report, 86% of job seekers say culture is a “somewhat or very important” factor, with 48% rating it as “very important” (up from 37% in 2019), in their job search.
- Meaningful Work
Another powerful driver of employee engagement is to work for an organization that helps workers find purpose. Employees need to find meaning in their work to feel a sense of purpose that shows the connection between their daily tasks and the impact those individual tasks can have.
When employees go to work with a sense of purpose, it increases motivation, boosts morale, increases productivity, and improves overall job satisfaction.
Investment in development and learning opportunities helps fulfill employees’ needs to grow and develop professionally. This can help them become better at their jobs or to take on new roles and responsibilities within the organization.
Because learning is essential for employees to develop new skills and find fulfillment in their work, companies that offer development opportunities to their employees are laying the groundwork for long-term success with a team of engaged employees who do their jobs well.
Employees need to be given the tools they need to be successful and empowered to take ownership of responsibilities and projects. One tool that employees greatly value is flexibility. Increasingly, this means the ability to work independently and with autonomy.
Employee autonomy is vital for building and maintaining a highly engaged team. When employees are allowed and encouraged to work autonomously, they feel valued and trusted, which improves engagement.
More diversity, within a culture of inclusiveness, promotes higher levels of employee engagement. Employees need to feel a sense of belonging and connection with co-workers, and they need to be comfortable in their work environment.
Inclusion meets an employee’s need for psychological safety, and it helps engagement by fostering an environment where all employees can express concerns, ask questions, or make suggestions without fear, shame, or negative repercussions.
Recognizing the accomplishments and contributions of employees reinforces the sense of purpose employees need to feel to be engaged; rewarding them and showing them, and the team, how their contributions have an impact in the organization is important for engagement.
Recognition is a great way to engage employees because it boosts self-esteem and personal competency. Motivation is a huge factor in employee engagement. When it comes to motivators, recognition is one of the best ways to improve employee engagement in your organization.
Feedback shouldn’t just be in the form of recognition; employees need regular feedback on their performance and should also feel comfortable providing feedback to leadership.
When employees receive regular, helpful feedback from managers, and they are empowered to provide meaningful feedback to co-workers and leadership, you see higher levels of engagement.
Employees need to have a trust-based relationship with leadership. Leaders should continually work to build and maintain trust by providing clarity and transparency about employees’ roles and responsibilities.
A high level of trust between leaders and employees is essential when providing the autonomy employees need for engagement.
- Job Clarity
This may seem like a no-brainer, but in some organizations where change is constant and turnover is high, a lack of clarity on job roles and expectations can hurt engagement if there is any confusion about who is doing what and for whom.
This has become an even more important factor during the pandemic as staff have been stretched thin, and many employees have had shifting responsibilities or new responsibilities assigned to them—and possibly new management to answer to.
- Work/Life Balance
Providing flexibility, supporting autonomy, and avoiding a culture of “toxic productivity,” which can lead to burnout and disengagement, helps with work/life balance for on-site and remote workers.
Providing total wellness programs and launching well-being initiatives can also help employees with their work/life balance.
Examples of Engagement and Strategies for Achieving Them
Here are some examples of employee engagement and some tips for getting the whole team engaged.
Sense of Purpose: Engaged employees feel a strong sense of purpose that motivates them to perform well. Their enthusiasm for their work is rooted in their belief that the work they do is meaningful and has an impact.
Strategy: Leaders can significantly impact how strongly an employee believes in the mission and how strongly an employee believes in leadership’s dedication to its mission. Regularly reinforcing the organization’s mission and vision, demonstrating core values, and showing employees the impact of their work can be great for engagement.
High Performance: When employees feel enthusiastic about their work, they will perform well. High engagement yields better retention, less absenteeism, more productivity, and improved customer service and customer retention.
Strategy: Inspiring employees to perform at their best is important to engagement, so taking a more personalized approach is important here. By recognizing the accomplishments and contributions of employees, providing coaching and mentoring, and providing employees with autonomy, leaders can expect to see an uptick in engagement, performance, and the overall quality of work.
Collaboration: Having a team that has a high level of trust in leadership and each other and a strong belief in the organization’s mission, will be good at collaboration. When employees are engaged, it creates a positive, harmonious work environment where employees truly function as a team and their collaborative efforts pay off.
Communication: Engaged employees communicate well and with respect. To build strong relationships with co-workers, good communication is essential.
Strategy: Leadership should set the tone for good communication throughout the organization by regularly communicating with employees, encouraging them to communicate with each other, and avoiding “communication triangles.”
Feedback: Employees need feedback to know not only what they may be doing wrong but what they are doing right. Engaged employees will receive feedback well and will also be good at providing useful feedback to management.
Strategy: Give feedback to employees regularly that is actionable, constructive, compassionate, specific, focused, timely, and presented in a positive tone. Give employees the opportunity to provide feedback as well, whether it is through surveys or weekly 1 to 1 meetings.
It is important for employees to feel like valued, respected members of the team. They need to feel a sense of belonging through a shared sense of purpose and work that they find meaningful.
Being motivated to work toward common goals through meaningful work unites employees and facilitates collaboration, communication, and high performance.
When there is a strong emphasis on teamwork and working toward a purpose to achieve an organization’s mission, they will have more cultural buy-in and will be more engaged.
The engagement strategies you implement in your organization should be designed with these factors in mind and should be aimed at inspiring all employees to approach their job the way engaged employees do.
Matt Tenney is the founder of PeopleThriver and The Generous Group, two companies that aspire to create the best workplace cultures in the world. Matt is also the author of Serve To Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom, and The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence. Matt is frequently invited to present keynote speeches at leadership conferences and meetings. His TEDx Talk has been viewed over 1,000,000 times since January, 2020.