Employee engagement pitfalls: how can we make it more human?

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All too often organisations treat employee engagement as a box ticking exercise, but true engagement is about fostering an ongoing two-way dialogue with your team members. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to make employee engagement more human. By this I mean that engagement is our attempt to replicate in the workplace something we do in our everyday non-work lives: interact with other people in some sort of meaningful way.

Why does engagement often seem like a science experiment?

In a lot of the articles I read, and on a lot of websites that promote their software for measuring employee engagement and employee experience, it all sounds rather like a science experiment.

  • Are your employees engaged today?
  • If so, what did you do right?
  • If not, what should you change?
  • Should you do surveys?
  • Should you do pulse surveys?
  • Should you go and talk to them?

Or perhaps another analogy would be that when organisations try to engage their employees, it seems to be like a parent/infant relationship.

Why is he crying now? Is he thirsty? Tired? Need his nappy changed? Oh! He seems happy now, isn’t that cute. Oh my goodness, he’s driving me crazy, he’s drooling all over the place – but I can’t let him know I’m irritated, right, that would make me a bad parent?

Robust relationships are the basic building blocks of employee engagement.

This isn't what it should be like. What employee engagement boils down to is our ability to communicate with each other: a two-way dialogue. It's a dialogue between adults, where negative feelings can be aired (in a grown-up way) as well as positive ones.

An example 

Let me give you an example of how this might work. A few weeks ago, I was doing a training session at a company for whom I’ve done a lot of work; I know the people I train there fairly well, and I’ve seen them grow and develop over the last half a dozen years. It was a group of eight people, two of whom were new to me.

There was some conversation about how staff and management should not get along – if they do, then it must be because staff are not standing up for themselves.

In other words, there was an unspoken assumption that whatever management do is to the detriment of staff: therefore, to get along with them was to accept that.

Notably, this position was taken by the new members of the group.

One of the men who’s been on several of my training courses took a different tack. He’s soft-spoken and gentle, but with an air of determination.

“You know, at the last meeting we had with management,” he said quietly, “we were talking about a difficult change we were going through – redundancy.” He paused for a second. “They made some hard decisions, but we knew why they had to take them, and ultimately, we as staff accepted them.”

“At that meeting,” he continued, “we made sure to tell them we thought they had done a really good job. It wasn’t all perfect, but given the real world circumstances they had to address, they had done good work. I saw their faces soften, and I could see that it meant something to them that we thought that and told them. After that, our relationships with them improved.”

This is what I mean by a grown-up two-way dialogue. You will talk about difficult things but if you can be honest and communicate with each other about where things have gone well – not just where things have gone badly – you are working on an essential human activity: building relationships.

Robust relationships are the basic building blocks of employee engagement.

How to truly engage employees

Here are my practical tips for introducing this basic building block into your life at work – whether you’re a manager or staff (and let’s not forget that managers are staff):

  • Speak from a position of knowledge – know your facts, gather information.
  • Your opinion is only relevant if it is an informed opinion – in other words, if it is in the context of understanding the big picture, the strategic narrative.
  • Remember that whilst it’s useful to identify problems, it’s also important to let others know when they’re doing good work - if they don’t know that, how can they replicate it in the future?
  • Take the time to build relationships – this might mean an informal chat in the breakroom – you don’t always have to talk business.

As always, I’d love to hear your stories about engagement. What other basic building blocks of employee engagement have you identified? Let me know in the comments below.

Interested in learning more about this topic? Read Employee engagement: sometimes it is the small things that make a difference.

About Jasmine Gartner

Image of Jasmine Gartner

Jasmine has lived in London since 2008, and has worked extensively all around the UK, speaking about and developing, designing and delivering training on employee engagement, information & consultation, cross cultural awareness, unconscious bias and diversity and inclusion. She is the author of Employee Engagement: a little book of Big Ideas.

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