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Mastering the psychology of employee engagement

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Psychology is pivotal to employee engagement, and if there is one thing great leaders understand, it's how to motivate and inspire people in the workplace.

9th Aug 2022
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In today’s workplace, high employee engagement has become the pinnacle of a thriving workforce – recognised as an essential ingredient to any business that wants high-performing, highly productive, and happy employees. 

To improve employee engagement, leaders must understand the key influences at play – learning why they work and how to implement them. And although there has been vast research on engagement in the workplace, some leaders just can’t get it right. 

Making sense of employee engagement

Employee engagement is simple, and Gallup summarises it pretty neatly:

“The involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace”. 

In a nutshell, it’s creating a sense of purpose, as opposed to a place where employees just collect a monthly salary. It’s taking a people-first approach to health and wellbeing, instead of box-ticking with little impact. It’s the small details leaders acknowledge that can build a work environment.

After a couple of difficult years, littered with obstacles for both employers and employees, engagement has prevailed as a workplace superpower. Whether it’s the rising cost of living, the ‘war for talent’ or the Great Resignation, workplace engagement could be the answer. 

In one study by Gallup, it was revealed that companies with a highly engaged workforce are 21% more profitable. What’s more, according to Oak.com, the cost of disengaged employees is around 18% of their annual salary. 

It’s clear that employee engagement is critical to many facets of business, and leaders must understand the different motivational and psychological drivers that influence engagement. Let’s take a look at some of these at play.

Psychological drivers of employee engagement

There are several powerful psychological drivers for high employee engagement. Once you understand them, you’re able to skyrocket engagement in your own team. 

Employee accomplishment

It’s important employees make regular progress with their work to stay engaged. It’s what drives enjoyment and cements our self-worth as part of a wider team. 

One of the best ways employees can accomplish great things in their careers is by leaning into their strengths, i.e their skillsets. Employees that use their strengths every day are six times more likely to be engaged at work, and 8% more productive.

Small wins are another huge factor of accomplishment psychology. Celebrating the small wins motivates people in a way that encourages them to chase the next accomplishment. 

To help employees to celebrate small successes, consider the following techniques:

  1. Set clear and realistic goals
  2. Provide the right tools for the job
  3. Set considerate deadlines
  4. Allow employees to embrace failure

The secret of life is to fall seven times and to get up eight times. – Paulo Coelho 

Autonomy and responsibility

It comes as no surprise that employees who are empowered to work autonomously, and with trusted responsibilities are more engaged. 

The psychology behind autonomy and responsibility is closely linked to accomplishment. That’s because we all want to see our influence and involvement in a project as a driver of accomplishment. 

In the 1980s the ‘self-determination theory’ by American psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci explored intrinsic motivation. The theory looks at how people are motivated by curiosity and interest in a project, instead of motivation from external drivers. The two psychologists believed external factors (extrinsic motivation) actually diminished our motivation overall. 

This theory would support the idea that autonomy and the need for control in our lives over the work we produce, is important. Studies have also found that autonomy has been closely linked to positive wellbeing and job satisfaction

Workspace and environment

Leaders sometimes neglect the influence things like colour, space, noise and atmosphere have on motivation and engagement.

Let’s draw on some inspiration from the best in business. According to Workplacedesign.co.uk, Google’s office environment encourages ‘casual collision’ between employees. And in a business that lives and breathes innovation and creativity, it represents the ‘Google way’. 

From Dublin to California, Google’s offices are designed to be unconventional, yet fitting with their philosophy of work and life existing harmoniously – one that avoids corporate dullness. 

A workspace that is designed to support employees in their autonomous pursuit of great work, along with offering ample perks is a successful environment. Office layout can encourage collaboration, inspire creativity, and support wellbeing with safe spaces.

Workplace relationships

Peer relationships are a leading psychological driver of employee engagement. Not just in a collaborative sense, but in a sense of belonging to an environment, team and cause. 

We all know just how many hours we spend with colleagues in the workplace. Relationships are influential to things like job satisfaction, productivity and output. 

Psychologists identify ‘psychological safety’ as a critical characteristic of an ideal work environment. It’s the belief that individuals won’t be punished for speaking up; be it with ideas, concerns or mistakes. 

Holistic organisational hierarchies are becoming increasingly popular with forward-thinking businesses. And this openness empowers people to ask for support, give and receive feedback, and share information – all the attributes of a highly engaged workforce. 

Alone, we can do so little; together we can do so much. – Helen Keller

Recognition is often and sincere

In a study reported by Greatplacetowork.com, the biggest driver of ‘great work’ was recognition. Recognition scored higher than the desire for a pay rise, promotion and even autonomy. 

Most companies use annual performance reviews, but evidence suggests real-time recognition is a better approach. For example, think of the difference made when receiving a Well done! upon a project being finished, compared to a week later – it is just not as meaningful.

To implement better recognition for better employee engagement, leaders must consider the following:

  1. Give context to your recognition
  2. Be sincere with your recognition 
  3. Personalise your recognition
  4. Publicly recognise employees

People work for money but go the extra mile for recognition, praise and rewards. – Dale Carnegie

Fine-tuning your employee engagement strategy

Employee engagement is an ongoing process. These psychological drivers can boost employee engagement – but alone, they do very little. Everything from employee wellbeing to an organisation's benefits package has to be robust and people-centric.

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