One only needs to look at Gallup’s almost daily updates to their engagement figures to find evidence of some people’s obsession with employee engagement. An engaged employee is a valuable thing – someone who is invested in their work above and beyond the minimum that is required to receive a pay cheque. They show extra effort and commitment, willing to go above and beyond in their workplace, deriving a sense of satisfaction from their work. Yet while every leader desires it, how do we practically foster engagement in our employees?
I recently had the opportunity to consult for a not-for-profit organisation concerned with the level of employee engagement in their workplace. As part of our initial fact finding and needs analysis, my team and I conducted interviews with employees across the organisation. Two things became quite clear very quickly. First, there was a lack of trust between the majority of the organisation and its leadership. This largely stemmed from a lack of transparency, where leaders tried to keep organisational decisions and changes secret. The reason behind decisions were rarely communicated, leaving employees to form their own conclusions – conclusions usually at odds with the intent of their leaders.
Secondly, many of the employees we spoke to could not find meaning in their work. Most people working in the not-for-profit sector are drawn to the mission, vision and values of particular organisations. They desire to make a meaningful contribution to society and believe that working for their chosen organisation will give them the best opportunity to do so, aligning their employment with their desire to make a difference. Yet when I asked these employees to articulate how their day-to-day work contributed to the mission of their organisation, most couldn’t. Many responded with frustration and exasperation.
The research that explores employee engagement is quite clear – work needs to be meaningful. Employees who view their work as meaningful are much more likely to be engaged, experiencing satisfaction, fulfilment and happiness in the workplace. Thus they are more committed to the organisation they work for, willing to put in the extra effort to achieve organisational goals.
The importance of meaning and alignment
For work to be meaningful, employees must be able to articulate the contribution their work makes. One of my favourite quotes is “Thoughts untangle themselves, over the lips and through the fingertips.” The act of articulation, either verbally or in writing, clarifies a persons thoughts. Clarity brings purpose, and with purpose comes meaning, and with meaning motivation, and with motivation engagement. If employees can clearly articulate how the tasks they are required to do from day-to-day contributes to the overall mission or purpose of an organisation, they are much more likely to be engaged with their work.
In order to harness the potential of engaged employees and harvest the benefits at the organisational level, leaders must seeks to ensure alignment between employees’ efforts and organisational goals. When engaged employees know their organisation’s priorities and how they can contribute, they are able to align their personal efforts with the strategic direction of the organisation. This requires transparency and trust by leaders.
Employees who were aware of the strategic priorities of the organisation, viewed them as important and understood how their job directly contributed to the achievement of organisational priorities, reported higher levels of engagement. (Biggs, Brough & Barbour, 2014)
So how do leaders foster engagement?
Share the vision
Great leaders never stop casting vision. At every opportunity they remind their staff of where the organisation is going, inspiring collective effort to realise what can be. When inspiring vision is in the forefront of employees’ minds, it has the potential to influence their work. If employees are not thinking about their organisation’s mission, or worse don’t have a clear understanding of what it is, then they will be unable to see how they can contribute and their work will lack meaning.
This requires trust, but it also builds trust. When leaders trust their employees enough to be transparent in their decisions and explain strategic direction, they earn the trust of their employees. Conversely, there is nothing more corrosive to engagement than a lack of trust in the workplace.
Articulate the contribution
While the contribution of some roles may be intuitive, in others it may not. Like sharing vision, leaders need to take every opportunity to articulate how their employees contribute to the success of the organisation. It may be through sharing a story of how the actions of a team or individual contributed to a successful outcome. Or rather than thanking an employee for their work in general, thank them for the specific action they took and the specific outcome that resulted. However it is done, employees should have no doubt in their mind of what contribution the make.
Don’t wait for alignment to happen by itself. Be intentional. Consider what the strategic priorities of the organisation are and specifically align the goals of teams and departments with these priorities. Do this all the way down to the frontline. When the vision, the structure and goals of an organisation are aligned, employees can clearly see how they can contribute and align their own efforts in order to do so.
For many leaders the application of these four steps need not require drastic behaviour change. The likelihood is the most employees will not even notice. But the results will speak for themselves.
Consider each of these steps. What small change can you make to foster engagement in your staff today?
Biggs, A., Brough, P., & Barbour, J. (2014) Strategic alignment with organisational priorities and work engagement: A multi-wave analysis. Journal of Organisational Behaviour. 35, 310-317.
Fairlie, P. (2011) Meaningful work, employee engagement, and other key employee outcomes: Implications for human resource development. Advances in Developing Human Resources. 13(4) 508-525.
Geldenhuys, M., Laba, K., & Venter, C. (2014) Meaningful work, work engagement and organisational commitment. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology. 40(1).