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Creating sustainable engagement: a look into engagement

When we talk about employee engagement, what do we really mean?

There is no single accepted definition; instead, engagement is a broad term that focuses on employee attitudes towards their role and pays close attention to the concepts of job satisfaction and organisational commitment.

For an employee, engagement rests on knowing their place within the organisation and how their contribution fits into an overall strategy. Having clarity energises the workforce, who can all work towards a single goal and motivate each other towards achieving their objective.

As a result, employers aim to increase levels of engagement in an effort to boost organisational performance. Improved performance comes in many guises, from decreased absenteeism to increased productivity.

As there are benefits for both the employee and employer, engagement should be seen as a two-way commitment. While employers can put strategies in place designed to improve engagement, employees must also take on some of this responsibility, as they have made a commitment to the organisation when signing their contract of employment.

How do you know when your workforce is engaged?

Engagement surveys are the most common method of measuring how engaged your workforce is.

Usually taking the form of a questionnaire, an employee engagement survey gathers a momentary snapshot of insight, with responses mapped against a scoring system. Of course, in recent years many organisations use ‘live’ measurement via apps to collect this data. This has changed the tone of the experience, but the questions being asked are remarkably similar to traditional surveys. Here are a few examples of questions that make their way into 90% of engagement surveys :

  1. I can see myself working here in five years.
  2. I have a clear understanding of my company’s strategic goals.
  3. I can easily see how my work affects the company’s overall success.
  4. I always know what is expected of me when it comes to my goals and objectives.
  5. My manager recognizes my full potential and capitalizes on my strengths.

While each of these questions are undoubtedly important and are linked to driving business success, can you spot an issue with them?

This definition of employee engagement only shows part of the picture of a positive and productive working environment.  

Many traditional engagement surveys – in maintaining a narrow focus on employee commitment – fail to take into account the depth of relationships and the range of factors which contribute towards a person’s experience of work.

Notable pitfalls of traditional engagement surveys

For 20 years, we’ve been helping businesses improve the wellbeing of their staff, which means we’ve analysed the results of many engagement surveys in an attempt to create a better link to sustainable engagement and performance.

Below, we’ve detailed the pitfalls of traditional employee engagement surveys, which are designed to make you think beyond narrow engagement.

Lack of goals and ownership

If engagement does not start with a clear goal and sense of ownership then it can be an uphill battle from the start.

Is the business prioritising engagement in order to drive productivity and customer satisfaction? Or to reduce sickness absence, perhaps? Whichever combination of goals a business sets, it’s important that they give the strategy a clear direction and momentum but that they also translate into an authentic, compelling case for employees.

This can be a difficult task but an individual employee asking ‘what’s in it for me’ is more likely to be satisfied if part of the organisation’s goals are linked to a genuine concern of the experience and wellbeing of its people.

This is much less likely to be the case if a business sets out to measure engagement merely because they want to follow a trend.

This kind of engagement drive is also more likely to suffer from a lack of ownership, as line managers and leaders struggle to grasp the end goal that they are moving towards. Goals and ownership are the cornerstones of successful engagement strategies, whether ‘narrow’ or sustainable.

The tick-box exercise

The engagement survey as a tick-box exercise is handed down from an invisible source, crossed off, returned to the ether, and very rarely heard from again.

In some organisations, this happens once a year, with the aim of demonstrating an engaged workforce and without any real desire to delve into the factors that determine people’s experience of work.

Clearly, this is a dangerous habit to fall into, even with the best intentions.

Instead, those leading engagement inside businesses need to ask if they are getting the right level of information in order to have a real impact on working practices and employee performance.

If a business’ engagement survey has many of the attributes mentioned above, the answer is probably no.

Poor communication

Just as a lack of a clear goal can hinder engagement, poor communication can leave line managers and the wider organisation in the lurch, without a proper understanding of the engagement survey, or any holistic approach that it forms part of – but with a long list of improvement actions.

Without well-thought-out and personal communication, surveys can often seem like an inauthentic approach from managers to appease senior leadership.

There is no universal template for an effective communications plan, but it’s important that whatever you do matches the tone and style of existing internal communications and emphasises the inherent benefits for individual employees. It needs to build on what already works in the business.

Engagement surveys send a signal of change to employees, but if effective communication isn’t planned and executed, you can undermine even the most genuine engagement efforts.

Engineering results

The ‘now’s not a good time’ mentality is one of the most common barriers to engagement but looking to time a survey in order to deliver the highest scores (for example after a business success or even yearly pay increments) contradicts its main purpose to gather balanced, meaningful intelligence.

At its worst, engineering results can mean managers standing over their staff as they complete a survey. Whilst this kind of behaviour certainly isn’t the norm in a majority of organisations, it does serve to highlight how careful businesses must be when linking engagement to performance targets and managerial incentives.

What’s missing?

Thinking about your own working life, are issues of commitment and citizenship the things that come to mind when things are going well, or badly?

Perhaps, but while it is important for organisations to know the answer to these questions, we also have to ask – “What is driving these employee attitudes?”

If an individual isn’t feeling committed, why is that the case?

For example, is it to do with pay, a relationship with a manager, or the scale of workloads? A deeper dive into the workplace environment is needed to collect this type of information, both positive and negative, which is essential for any business looking to take action to improve and sustain engagement and wellbeing.

Clearly, when engagement is treated as a narrow set of attitudes, it needs to be supplemented with more data to be of practical use to an organisation. Evidence to support the case for a more comprehensive approach to engagement has been building since the late 1990s (see, for example, Wright & Cropanzano, 20001). A starting point for that comprehensive approach has been to examine the predictors of performance within real organisations.

What is the answer?

Longitudinal studies have quantified the link between employee engagement and job performance. Crucially, recent research has shown that psychological wellbeing is a stronger predictor of performance than the existing concept of ‘narrow’ engagement alone.

What the research highlights is the need to consider both of these factors if organisations are to gather authentic results that have the greatest impact.

So, even if the aim is ultimately to drive organisational outcomes – to improve profit margins, reduce sickness absence, and so on – research shows the need to focus further down the chain that links individual wellbeing factors to job satisfaction, organisational commitment and performance.

Are you ready to delve deeper into the wellbeing of your organisation? Learn about our unique approach to measurement and wellbeing strategy.


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