The Importance and Challenges of Employee Engagement

How to know when it’s missing and what to do about it

Everyone agrees that employee engagement is desirable, but how do you know whether or how engaged your workforce is? There are signs and signals to look for that indicate it could use a boost in your organization, as well as ways to cultivate and sustain it to the benefit of your team and your company.

Engaging with engagement

Workforce engagement is a concept that’s getting a lot of attention these days - and justifiably so. Having a team that is engaged with the work they do certainly sounds attractive, and academic studies suggest that employee engagement can indeed improve performance, safety and morale. But what exactly do we mean when we talk about “engagement“ in a work environment? How do we know when we have it, or when we don’t? It is certainly not an easily quantifiable concept, and any discussion of it needs to begin with a working definition.
Engagement is more than simple participation. Engaged employees not only carry out their tasks reliably, but actively strive to find ways that they personally can improve the company’s performance. This presupposes that the individual feels they are part of a team and can identify with and support the team’s goals. In other words, the employee feels personally invested in the success of the organization, and not just monetarily, but, emotionally, mentally, psychologically.

Consequences of dis-engagement

Since measuring such an intangible concept with any accuracy is a challenge, it might be more useful to start by considering some behaviors that point to an engagement deficit. New initiatives, new projects, anything that requires a change in routine operations will test the engagement of your workforce. Encountering strong resistance at these junctures in the form of intense negative feedback, indicates a disconnect between leadership goals and employee perceptions that is incompatible with engagement. An “us versus them” mentality may develop, whereby rank and file workers view the initiative or change as perhaps beneficial to stakeholders or top management, but opposed or indifferent to the interests of the workforce at large. This attitude may even give rise to a set of “unofficial rules” adopted by workers that circumvent company policy, because, the thinking goes, the official rules and mandates are an inconvenience and are only in effect to protect upper management anyway. It is easy to see how these scenarios, or some variation thereof, can stymie an organization’s efforts at improvement, undercut its goals and even result in safety risks.
Unfortunately, this sort of reaction in the face of change is not unusual when the importance of cultivating employee engagement is discounted. To cite a real-life example, a pharmaceutical company made plans for a new initiative aimed at improving on-site availability. New building construction, new processes and new machinery were all part of the project. The intentions of the company leadership were admirable, and they planned in detail how their goals would be achieved before handing over implementation to the heads of the various departments and teams involved. The latter were suddenly confronted with mandated processes and excessive paperwork without prior explanation or consultation. They saw their workload expand in ways they could not justify and to the point that they were prevented from attending to their core duties. In desperation, they threatened to withdraw from the project entirely. This, of course, seriously impeded the company’s success in its endeavor.

Becoming aware of the hidden influencers

In this case - and in many others of its kind - company leadership overlooked and underestimated a key constituency. These are the hidden influencers, individuals who may not rank high in the organization’s hierarchy - usually they supervise small departments or large teams - but who nonetheless wield considerable power in shaping opinions and affecting attitudes. Inspiring their engagement goes a long way to boosting engagement across the workforce generally. To avoid alienating hidden influencers, and ultimately to win them over, it’s best to invite them on board. I recommend a combination of informal and formal approaches. Finding opportunities to connect with these individuals one-on-one, whether during a break at a conference or in some other “unofficial” venue, and eliciting their input is one place to start. If there is a specific change or initiative underway that is meeting resistance, you might point out previous changes implemented in the past that improved conditions in the company in some way. Finally, you could demonstrate that you value the person’s experience or expertise by handing over responsibility for reaching certain goals or completing certain projects - in short, treating him or her as a worthy partner with a vested interest in the company’s success.

Cultivating and tracking engagement

Unlike analyzing a technological process or fine-tuning a mechanical function, learning to stimulate the engagement of your workforce requires quite a degree of emotional intelligence and social finesse. At DEKRA our individual coaching services are among the most effective tools we have for helping clients close the engagement gap. Through on-site observation, immediate feedback and intensive follow-up focused on applying what’s been learned, leaders can improve their sensitivity to social cues and skills in interpersonal interactions.
Still, measuring engagement to ensure your efforts as a company are working is complex. Tracking active participation through productive talks with employees or improvement notes that workers submit, or perhaps documenting how tasks related to an initiative are fulfilled could provide worthwhile information. If you or your organization has experimented with any of these ideas, we would be interested in hearing how well they worked. Sharing experiences and learning from each other helps us all progress. I am eager to hear your thoughts.
Author: Ralf Schnoerringer Consultant, DEKRA Organizational Reliability
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