Engagement is a term that gets tossed around a lot in the business world. When we observe employees (including ourselves) not being focused or lacking energy in doing their jobs, we say that they have low engagement or are disengaged.
I don’t believe that it’s very complicated to detect engagement levels. Needing an engagement survey to determine whether you have engagement issues is like needing a scale to determine whether or not you would benefit from fat reduction. Engagement surveys do nothing to fix it and they set an expectation with employees that you will make meaningful changes. Not following through with true, effective change can create cynicism that harms future efforts. That’s why the focus of this article is on causes and solutions. Let’s go.
The basic principles of engagement
Engagement is about basic human psychology, nothing particularly advanced (psych degree not required). Here are the basics:
- As social creatures, we are wired with the need to feel we’re valued and accepted within our social groups; in this case our place of employment.
- We have a natural desire to express our gifts and talents (things we are good at and enjoy doing) and dislike spending a lot of time in things that don’t match these gifts and talents.
- We have an innate desire for meaning/purpose in what we do. We want to believe that the results of our efforts matter to others.
- We have an internal drive for progress or development. If we make the effort, we want to believe that we can be more, do more and have more as a result.
Why is this so important? Because management often approaches engagement solutions with programs that don’t address the actual causes. Disengagement, like most problems in life, only has a few basic root causes. However, the symptoms can show up in many ways. This can lure us into addressing the obvious symptoms and not the underlying causes. No wonder most companies make minimal progress with their attempted solutions to improve employee engagement.
Let’s apply the above information to understand the root-causes and solutions to engagement issues. The undesired, disengagement behaviors start as an effect or symptom of the unmet psychological needs. The resulting negative attitudes tend to be contagious and can quickly infect a group of people. Thus, disengagement becomes both a cause and effect. This is the vicious cycle companies often see that can be very difficult to break.
How to do to improve engagement
Improving engagement is dependent upon addressing the psychological needs that we all have. This means that the company leaders take an honest, objective view at how the company culture (beliefs and behaviors that determine how people interact and do their work) impact everybody in the company. Below are the relevant psychological needs and examples of mindsets or philosophies that effectively address these needs. Apply these properly and you will improve engagement.
- To feel valued and understood — Management earnestly listens to employees’ concerns, opinions and ideas with the intent to understand and consider their merits before responding. This replaces the common response of defending its position or punishing employees for expressing contrary viewpoints. Management isn’t required agree with the employees. What’s important is the sincere effort to listen, understand and consider their inputs.
- To express our gifts and talents — Management puts a focus on aligning roles and responsibilities with these gifts and talents. We all bring a substantially higher energy and engagement (and productivity) when we do work that we like and are good at. As legendary management consultant Peter Drucker said, “A manager’s task is to make the strengths of people effective and their weaknesses irrelevant”
- Meaning/purpose in what we do — This means that employees have a clear understanding of how their work impacts the mission and vision of the organization. People are much more motivated when they realize that their efforts truly matter.
- Internal drive for progress or development — Employees are at their best when there is “healthy tension” (not too low, not too high) to meet clear and reasonable standards. This means fair and consistent accountability and consequences based on performance relative to agreed-upon standards. People are motivated when they focus on: “What did I achieve today?” What did I learn today?” How did I grow?”
What’s not effective
Why do most efforts to fix disengagement fail? Because they don’t treat the underlying causes above. There is a potentially endless list of well-intended efforts that companies make to improve engagement. They’re often events or programs designed to get the attention of employees with a common message of “look at what we are doing for you”. Adjectives such as nice, cute, fun, cool and thoughtful are frequent responses from employees. These responses may leave the illusion with the company that they’ve done something with true long-term impact on employees.
However, these are attempts fail to address the underlying issues. They are “symptom treaters.” Examples include most team-building events, social mixers, employee recognition efforts, company newsletters, upgraded office environments, etc. Even pay and benefit increases have an initial rush soon followed by the familiar “right back where we were” syndrome. That’s not to say companies should not do these things. They are nice add-ons after the day-to-day essentials of human psychology are authentically addressed.
In summary, it is understandable that we gravitate towards easy, quick-fix solutions to our problems. There are plenty of people to make these suggestions and sell them to us. These efforts usually have a positive, initial effect that seduces us into thinking that we did something with long-term benefit. However, as in most things in life, there is no substitute for working at the cause-level and creating new habits of thinking and behavior. Though this effective approach requires a greater investment of time and effort, if you truly wish to solve your engagement problems, this is what it takes.