Employee engagement continues to rise up the HR agenda

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4th Dec 2012
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Given a perfect storm this year of low pay rises/freezes, increasing workloads in the wake of redundancies and falling levels of learning and development activity, the issue of employee engagement has been rising steadily up the HR agenda.

And as the difficult economic climate appears set to continue into the year ahead, it doesn’t look likely to be disappearing as a topic of key focus any time soon.   One of the beauties of the notion of employee engagement, however, is its simplicity: an engaged workforce is one that will be attuned to organisational goals and willing to go the extra mile, creating satisfied customers and bulging corporate coffers.   As such, it is a winning formula that has been fairly well understood and absorbed by forward-thinking senior executives.   Yet there is still a huge gap between intellectual understanding and meaningful action. All too often, an employee engagement survey amounts to the sum total of an engagement initiative when, in reality, it should just act as a first step before the hard work really begins. 
But organisations that undertake engagement successfully tend to follow four key principles as outlined by the Engage for Success Taskforce. They:  

  1. Create a strategic narrative about the business in order to motivate and inspire employees
  2. Give employees a voice
  3. Engage their managers
  4. Demonstrate organisational integrity in everything that they do.

 The importance of line managers  Importantly, however, the lynchpins to the success or failure of engagement initiatives are generally line managers. As Jo Hennessy, managing director at occupational psychologists JCA says: “Managers are tired of hearing that they are the biggest detriment to engagement, but it’s true.” 
The weight of responsibility that falls on their shoulders is heavy so it’s not surprising that a lot of people buckle under the weight. The situation also isn’t helped by the fact that HR tends to encourage managers to do a lot of its own former tasks these days.   But as Mandy Rutter, a psychologist at employee assistance provider, Validium, points out: “They don’t have those interpersonal skills because they were promoted for technical ability or sales ability.” 
To make matters worse, economic uncertainty has added to managers’ workloads, with many under pressure to deliver, even though their hands are tied.   Peter Reilly, director of HR research and consultancy at the Institute for Employment Studies, explains: “We haven’t got the carrot of improved pay and conditions and development or training or career opportunities - all the things that motivate most people.” 
As a result, it becomes vital to find ways that help managers to listen to staff and develop positive relationships with them.   In other words, one of the practical ways that managers can contribute to boosting engagement is to work on their own emotional intelligence (something that may take training) in order to both understand themselves more effectively and improve their interpersonal skills. 
More than anything, according to Validium’s Rutter, it is crucial that they develop a sense of empathy in order to truly understand what it is like for their team to work night shifts or answer calls from difficult customers.  Accidental management  But it is also important that they take an interest in their staff over and above their technical abilities. “If you are feeling fulfilled at work, it has a huge impact on your wellbeing: you have more energy, confidence, self-esteem,” she observes. 
JCA’s Hennessey, on the other hand, calls for people to check their “accidental management” – a situation in which they either don’t notice or forget to ask people how they are doing. “Lack of awareness leads to someone concluding that you don’t care about them,” she points out. 
It also doesn’t take much effort (or investment in training) for managers to simply ask people what they enjoy about their work and what they find most interesting and meaningful, or to ask how they feel that they contribute to the bigger picture, which can likewise help them to see their own value and feel more engaged. 
But after asking such questions, Rutter believes that it is then up to managers, to establish “if they can expand on that and say what they see as the most important part of the role, and match their expectations with what the organisation feels is important”. 
All too often, there is a subtle mismatch between what an employee feels is important and the bigger picture. For example, a call centre operative may believe that they are giving good customer service by answering a call within three rings, while their manager might put more value on the quality of information being provided.   A report on engagement in June by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development supported the idea that managers aren’t talking to their employees enough.   For instance, a mere 39% were found to discuss personal development with staff. Only 46% of workers were offered regular feedback and just three out of 10 were given on-the-job coaching.   As a result, some 58% of the workers questioned professed themselves to be even “neutrally engaged”, that is happy with their job and their immediate boss too, but not putting in the extra discretionary effort that would earn a gold star in engagement terms.  You can't buy engagement  Such findings would appear to imply that managers could turn some of these neutrally engaged employees into fully-engaged ones by simply concentrating on the three key areas of personal development, feedback and coaching. 
But Validium’s Rutter warns that organisations tend to be too eager to try and ‘solve’ the engagement issue by introducing a new engagement survey or a super-duper online strategy complete with fancy reporting tools.   However, “what they fail to do is look at management training in relation to interpersonal skills,” she notes. “How to deal with poor performance, change and restructuring are features of most managers’ daily life, but they don’t get support and training in that.” 
Rutter sums the situation up thus: “You can’t buy engagement, but you can earn it.” 
JCA’s Hennessy points out, meanwhile, that human psychology drives people to want to belong to groups. Such belonging is important for an individual’s personal self-esteem and means that they will put in extra discretionary effort for the benefit of the group as a whole.   But if an organisation is going through bad times or making poor decisions, people will also quickly wonder whether they really want to belong to that group anymore and so will shut down, even if they don’t ship out.   Therefore, it’s particularly important during turbulent times for employers to explain their actions, while at the same time being careful to value the power of team relationships.   For example, if someone is asked why they went the extra mile, they invariably say that it is because they work with people that they value. “Don’t underestimate how engaged people are with their colleagues,” Hennessy says.  Embed it and protect it  By the same token, however, redundancies can also lead to “survivor guilt” and mean that staff feel unhappy in their job even though their own position is secure. 
Lynne Graham, HR director at catering company owner, Westbury Street Holdings, has, for one, witnessed the power of successful engagement first hand.   “I have a very strong belief in the value of engagement. A lot of companies see it as an internal PR exercise - reward and recognition and doing a bit of voluntary work. They see it as something peripheral to the business,” she says. 
But this approach is not enough in her view. To work, engagement not only has to be integrated into the organisation’s culture and practices, but “more than embedded, it must be fiercely protected - unlike a tide that goes in and out, it must be absolutely entrenched in the values,” Graham explains. 
One of the ways that WSH is attempting to help its operational managers in this regard is by turning training on its head. The firm is running a course in which it asks them what the company should stop doing, what it is a pain to do and what would make their lives easier?   Because unnecessary bureaucracy can seep into every organisation and become institutionalised, Graham hopes that the initiative will help to identify some things that could be changed and give the company the opportunity to explain why others simply can’t. 
As “managers are the embodiment of the organisation”, she believes that, if engagement is to work, they must be convinced of its value and supported in their efforts to get it right.  

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