The secrets to increasing employee engagement aren’t secrets at all. There are specific steps, which if taken, will absolutely measurably increase engagement. In fact, in the dozens of organizations I’ve worked with over the years—from hospitals and healthcare systems to insurance companies and government agencies—these steps have never failed.
When I refer to employee engagement, I mean: the emotional commitment employees have to their organization and its goals. This emotional commitment is what triggers discretionary effort. When employees truly care: call center professionals give better service, railroad workers have fewer accidents, nurses reduce hospital infection rates, and talented employees everywhere stay in their jobs longer.
With such obvious benefits—benefits which drive better business outcomes through the engagement-profit-chain—why are engagement levels in most organizations still so low?
Even when C-level leaders want to increase employee engagement, they often make mistakes in their efforts. The most common mistake is to simply assemble a task-force for “fun”. Though well-intentioned, engagement isn’t correlated to things like foosball tables, birthday balloons, summer picnics or team building skits.
Another common mistake is to take a top-down approach. Typically HR executes an employee survey, and then hoard the results in the C-suite where the company’s circle of elders determines how to “fix” the engagement crisis. When employee surveys reveal the need for more communication that rarely means they want more messages from the CEO. Similarly, it’s rare for employees, when asked, not to want more salary and benefits. Yet, incremental increases in compensation don’t trigger additional engagement.
So how can you guarantee to increase organizational engagement next year?
First, use a reputable firm to administer an employee engagement survey. Don’t just measure the behaviors that drive engagement (e.g., I receive recognition for my efforts and accomplishments), you need to also use proxy questions for one’s level of engagement (e.g., How likely are you to recommend this company as a place to work?). This is key: you need to both understand your benchmark measurement for engagement itself, and how that’s different from measuring the drivers of engagement.
Second, people-managers need to be given their own results; they all need to get a copy of their own score report. They need to know the engagement score of their own team, and how it compares to the company average. Individual manager results should primarily be used for self-reflection and action planning (see step three below) but in cases where a manager has extremely low scores they can be flagged for additional coaching and leadership development.
Finally, each manager needs to share the team report with his or her direct reports in an action planning meeting. While it can take some professional courage to facilitate this meeting if your scores were below average, the execution is not difficult. The team should simply have a conversation about the scores. What were the highest and lowest scores? Were they surprised by the results? Why or why not? Then target one area for improvement (typically the lowest score) and brainstorm specific actions for improvement.
This bottom-up approach to action planning is the key to success. Gallup and others have shown that approximately 70% of the variance in engagement comes from who our boss is. Engagement—how we feel about work—is local. So the solutions have to come from the bottom up.
Even if miraculously every single team in a large company had the same lowest-score item—say, Communication—what teams are complaining about would be different. The communication problem in the accounting department might be related to late notifications on chargebacks. The communication problem among sales reps might be related to not having timely information about competitors. The communication problem among IT engineers might be related to poorly run scrum meetings. Our issues are local, so our solutions must be local.
If you really want to increase engagement in your organization in 2018, start by implementing a sound employee survey. Share the results at the manager level. Hold every manager accountable for action planning—and executing on those actions—with their team.
When you re-survey your organization six months later (yes, I said six months), you will see at 5-10% improvement in average engagement scores and perhaps a whole lot more.