Engagement

What Does Employee Engagement Mean? Everything You Need to Know
What Does Employee Engagement Mean? Everything You Need to Know 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

“Employee engagement” has become such a common term that it’s easy to assume everyone knows exactly what it means. The words have a positive ring, for sure. (Most of us associate engagement with marriage and that’s a pretty happy time.) But what exactly does engagement mean at work? And how is it related to other similar phrases, such as employee satisfaction, employee experience, culture, and the rest?

I have dedicated the past 20 years of my career to employee engagement. As a result of being deep in it for so long, it’s easy for me to forget how confusing this language and concept can be for someone who doesn’t have that level of exposure.

If you’re not sure what this term really means or why it matters, this post is for you. Please know that you aren’t alone in your confusion.

In a nutshell, employee engagement is the connection between how an employee feels about their work experience and their performance on the job.

Employee engagement is an important concept that should be incredibly helpful to any organization or leader who cares about helping employees perform their best at work. But the idea was hijacked years ago by consultants and technologists who are more interested in selling you products than ensuring you understand how it works.

Let’s start by clearing up a few things.

Employee engagement is NOT a survey. Although businesses do use surveys to measure it.

Employee engagement is NOT a buzzword. It can feel that way but don’t be fooled. This is important work.

Employee engagement is NOT a fad. This work isn’t going anywhere. We are just getting started.

Enough about what employee engagement is not. Let’s dig into what it is and what you need to do about it.

employee

Employee Engagement Theory: Where It All Began

Over the past 30 years, the concept of employee engagement has become a central tenet in any discussion about workplace performance and culture. Today, people discuss engagement so commonly that it’s easy to assume that everyone knows what it is and how it works.

This is certainly not the case. While we have come to accept that employee engagement is a generally positive thing that we should want more of in our organizations, when you dig a little deeper, a real lack of clarity emerges.

The key reason for this is that employee engagement is an abstract concept. Employee engagement isn’t a tangible, concrete thing that is easy to identify and measure like sales revenue or customer retention.

Engagement is a framework made up by academics and consultants to help us measure and talk about things that happen in the workplace that are hard to understand individually–things like feelings and motivations.

The employee engagement idea was first brought to life in December 1990 by Boston University professor William Kahn. He was the first to publish research using the concept of “engagement” at work. The first sentence from his 1990 paper captures the challenge and promise of this work and why it’s still relevant 30 years later.

“This study began with the premise that people can use varying degrees of their selves, physically, cognitively, and emotionally, in work role performances, which has implications for both their work and experiences.”

Kahn put this work into motion. What followed has been an avalanche of research and tools for measuring and understanding employee engagement. The Gallup Organization also played a vital role in the popularization of the employee engagement by introducing their Q12 measure of engagement and using that as a foundation to benchmark employee engagement levels globally over the past two decades.

Thanks to Kahn and the other early pioneers, we have a more profound understanding of how the employee’s experience of work drives their performance, morale, loyalty, and more.

Ironically, what hasn’t emerged over the past 30 years is a common definition for employee engagement. There are nearly as many definitions of employee engagement as there are researchers and consultants. So let’s turn our attention to that next.


Employee Engagement Definition

As someone who’s been working in the field for well over a decade now, one of the most perplexing things about the work is the lack of a clear standard definition.

Consider that some estimate that organizations globally are spending over $6 billion a year on technology to improve engagement. That’s just the technology spend. The overall investment in initiatives and programs is probably two to three times that number.

All for something that those same organizations often can’t clearly define.

This is baffling. Getting clear on definition is crucial for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that definition is the first step of measurement. If we hope to measure our progress toward creating a more engaged workplace and quantify how it impacts organizational results, we must have an explicit definition for employee engagement.

Can you imagine an organization investing immense time and energy in the “financial health” of the organization without being crystal clear on what that meant?

employee engagement

Even at a personal level, the need for definition is clear. Nearly every person I know has at one point told me that they were trying to get “healthier.” That same thing has been true for me.

If improving your health is a goal, what exactly does that mean? If you don’t define what that means for you, how can you ever know if you are making progress?

For one person, health might mean weight loss. For another, it might mean stopping destructive behaviors like smoking or eating fried foods. Someone else might define it as getting 30 minutes of physical activity each day.

Only when you clearly define it can you effectively go to work on both measuring it and making intentional progress toward your objective.

Much like health, employee engagement is a broad concept that can mean a lot of things. Before starting your work to improve engagement, it is vital that you clearly articulate a definition.

The definition for your organization may be slightly different than the definition at another organization. The important thing is that it is articulated clearly in a way that can drive both action and measurement.

Below is the definition of employee engagement I use:

ENGAGEMENT is the degree to which an employee is both willing and able to perform to their potential.

It’s a simple definition. The outcome of engagement is high performance and the work of engagement is about facilitating the employee’s willingness and ability to be at their best at work.

A definition like this, while still broad, helps to clarify what this work is about and why it matters. It can also help you focus on what and how to measure your progress.

You will know that you have a clear definition of employee engagement when you (and the other leaders in your organization) have no issue explaining what it is and precisely why it’s essential to achieving your organization’s objectives.

employees on zoom

What Drives Employee Engagement?

A definition helps us clarify the meaning of the term, but most conversations about employee engagement focus on a different question: “How does it work?” If we want to improve or enhance this thing, where should we focus?

Fortunately, Gallup, the Great Place to Work Institute, American Psychological Association (APA), and many in the academic community have been measuring employee engagement for decades. Their research provides us with rich insights into how employees experience work and what motivates them to higher performance.

Regardless of what research or data you look at regarding employee engagement, you are likely to find some of the following factors listed as significant factors or “drivers” for employees:

  • Feeling valued
  • Trust
  • Caring
  • Appreciation
  • Belonging

The more employees experience these things at work, the more likely they are to be engaged.

What jumps out from this list is how relational each of these factors is. They sound more like what you would expect to be drivers of a healthy relationship than work. What these research findings reveal is that employees experience work in the same way they do any other meaningful relationship in their lives. When the relationship isn’t working or healthy, they are less likely to be or do their best.

Most organizations treat work like a contract with the employee rather than a relationship. In this way of thinking, employees receive pay and benefits in exchange for their work effort, and most management efforts are oriented around enforcing compliance with that contract.

Policy manuals, job descriptions, and performance appraisals are all management tools designed to help enforce the contract. The problem is that they do little to foster a healthy relationship with the employee, which leads to decreased employee engagement and higher turnover.

To create an experience of work that is engaging for employees, we need to embrace that work is a relationship for employees. This doesn’t mean that we throw out the policies or performance processes, just that we approach them in the spirit of fostering relationships.

That means designing management and team processes that encourage feelings of belonging, trust, caring, and appreciation. In the next section, we turn our attention to the specific strategies and practices that will most effectively help you to accomplish this.

zoom check in call

Employee Engagement Strategies: How to Improve Employee Engagement

Improving employee engagement requires a plan. And that plan will need to take into account the needs of the people you lead, the goals of the organization, and your personal aspirations.

To create an effective strategy, know your people and engage with them to create the best course of action. Your goal should be creating a work experience that feels good to employees so that they can do better work. What this looks like will be different for every team and every organization.

The single most powerful strategy for improving employee engagement is to talk to your teams about their experience at work and find opportunities where you could work together to make that experience better. Start with four simple steps:

      1. Check in with your people individually, as a group, or both. Ask about their experience and how it could be better.
      2. Listen intently and ask follow-up questions.
      3. Clarify what matters most and together identify what actions employees and managers should take to have the greatest positive impact.
      4. Take action to make things better.

For large groups, you might need to use tools like employee surveys or focus groups to check-in and listen to feedback, but the fundamentals of the process are always the same. Ask, listen, identify the issue, and take action. Rinse and repeat over and over forever.

If you are married or are in a serious relationship of any sort, you already know how vital this process is to ensure the relationship stays healthy. It’s when you quit checking in with one another that relationships tend to start cracking and falling apart. The same is true at work.

Make this process the foundation of your engagement strategy. It will ensure that you are engaged in an ongoing conversation with your people about how to make the work experience better. And if you do nothing beyond just this simple process, you will have taken a huge step to improve engagement on your team. This will result in both better performance and higher retention.

Employee Engagement Articles

Hungry for more reading that will help you deepen your knowledge of how to engage your employees? Here’s a short list to get you started.

If you’d like more content like this to arrive in your email box weekly, you can subscribe to this blog by clicking here.

Employee Engagement For You: The Latest News June 2020
Employee Engagement For You: The Latest News June 2020 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

Employee Engagement For You

Do you feel like you are standing at a fork in the road?

On one path, we attempt to circle back to return things to normal. We seek the comfort of how things used to be before COVID. Before George Floyd. Before everything changed.

That allure of comfort is powerful.  But that path leads nowhere. The old normal is gone. And good riddance. We can do better.

The second path is to recognize the opportunity in this moment. In the current disruption and chaos is the chance to shape a better future and leave the past behind.

To accomplish this will require more of us…

  • To learn and grow faster.
  • To ask bigger and better questions.
  • To unite and stand up for what really matters.

We can reshape work to finally work better for the humans who do it.

This is our moment and we must not miss it. If we work together, we can emerge from this time into a better, more just, more fulfilling future at work and beyond.

I’m taking the second path. I hope you will join me.

Until next time,

Jason

P.S. Thank you for the interest in my new Engagement Leader Community. If you haven’t checked it out yet, I’d invite you to take a peek and let me know what you think. The good news is that I’ve extended the introductory pricing. It’s a new way I’m hoping to help you amplify the impact of your work as we move forward.

Stuff You Should Read

starWhat will the post-COVID workplace look like? This question is perhaps one of the biggest we are all grappling with as we think about the path forward. This article from the NY Times provides a look into how Salesforce is preparing to bring people back to the office. It’s another reminder that normal as we knew it is gone. Read: Farewell to Gummy Bear Jars

starAs the U.S. experiences ongoing protests and calls to address systemic racism and injustice, employers and leaders are rightly being called upon to step up and take action. This HBR piece provides some helpful guidance on what that can look like. Read: U.S. Businesses Must Take Meaningful Action Against Racism

starA lot of people, perhaps you are one of them, are going through some really hard times right now. I’ve always struggled with knowing how to be supportive in the right way to those in crisis. This article describes how to use Susan Silk’s Ring Theory to guide behavior to provide support to those who most need it. I found it really helpful. Perhaps you will too. Read: 10 Tips to Offer Comfort to People in Crisis

stuff you should hear

If you haven’t discovered the Michael Lewis podcast, Against the Rules, today is your lucky day.work is a relationship icon It is currently in season two, which explores the rise and importance of coaching in all areas of our lives. It’s both entertaining and enlightening. Enjoy. Listen now. 

stuff you should watch

Since everything has been pretty heavy lately, I thought I’d end with something lighter. One of my favorite discoveries of the past few months is the Holderness Family on Youtube. Their parody videos are a way to find some real humor and joy in the weirdness that is our lives right now. This video, in particular, really nails a lot of what’s happening at our house this summer.

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Keeping Employees Connected (Without the Terrible Virtual Happy Hours)
Keeping Employees Connected (Without the Terrible Virtual Happy Hours) 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

Whether it’s because your workforce is newly remote or because you can’t hold in-person meetings right now, you are probably worrying about how to keep your employees connected. This has been a common refrain in the conversations I’ve been having lately.

I’m excited that this is a top concern for organizations and leaders. It’s overdue. Even before the pandemic, it was debatable whether our employees were that connected. A move toward greater connection is a positive one that will yield benefits far into the future for both employees and employers.

Yours is probably like most organizations and has turned to technology to find solutions. Zoom meetings, virtual team huddles and happy hours, and video leadership briefings have all become routine. The good news from my seat is that it appears that employees, managers, and leaders are meeting more than ever.

But there’s some question about whether or not all of this meeting is translating into a true feeling of connection. In fact, the term “Zoom fatigue” has become pretty common. And it’s a real thing.

If you want to foster and accelerate a feeling of connection for employees, you can boil the secret down to this: meaningful activity.

When it comes to connection for employees, meaningful activity is crucial.

Let me back up for a minute to explain. In 2012, I published my first book, Social Gravity: Harnessing the Natural Laws of Relationships, which I co-wrote with my friend and collaborator, Joe Gerstandt. We wrote the book to equip people with the insights and tools they needed to build networks of authentic relationships as a pathway to achieving success.

Our journey to write the book began because people started asking us how we’d each cultivated such a big network of relationships. At first, we weren’t sure of the answer, but we were curious enough to try to find it. This led to years of work deconstructing our own experiences and comparing that against what research suggested about how relationships form.

In our research, one of the most powerful insights came from the book Achieving Success through Social Capital by Wayne Baker. Despite the sexy title, this is a powerful book. The big idea that stuck with us from this book involved meaningful activity.

First, I need to explain social capital in case you aren’t familiar with the term. Social capital is the value that we have access to through our relationships with others. This value can be both tangible and intangible. Being friends with the neighbor who owns every tool on the planet and will loan them to you because of your relationship is a tangible example. Another example right now might be knowing someone who has access to surplus hand sanitizer.

Intangible examples involve things like trust or support. Being able to reach out and ask someone for a favor or help, and knowing that they are likely to say yes, is a form of social capital. Having someone in your life who will always take your call and listen when you need a sympathetic ear is also an example.

Social capital only exists in relationships where people have created some real connection to one another. They have some level of familiarity, trust, and often shared experience. The more robust the connection, the richer the relationship likely is in social capital. But without that connection, social capital doesn’t exist.

For example, you might have a thousand friends on Facebook or followers on Instagram, but would any of them show up to help you through a crisis or to help you move? Maybe. But unless you’ve invested in building some real connection in that relationship, probably not. Social capital is what differentiates the kind of relationships that help you survive and thrive in times like these.

Here’s the catch that Wayne Baker highlights in his book: Social capital is an outcome. It’s not something you can grab or create directly. It’s like happiness in this way. Happiness is something we value and desire, but we can’t buy or create happiness directly. It’s a by-product of doing things that make us happy.

Social capital, according to Baker, is the by-product of participating in meaningful activity with others.

Social capital is the by-product of participating in meaningful activity with others.

This insight rang true for us at the time, and I’ve seen it work over and over for the past decade since. When we come together with others to do something we mutually care about, relationships naturally form.

If you’ve ever volunteered or served on a board or committee, you have experienced this. As you do the work, you come to know the other people through their work and commitment. You spend time with them and create a shared bond, often before you even know much else about one another. These shared experiences and mutual interests bond you together and create a strong connection.

The same thing can happen with a variety of types of meaningful activity from working together on a project at work to coaching your kids’ sports teams. Shared participation in meaningful activity is one of the most powerful ways we have to cultivate connection that will not only help get us through the pandemic but will last far into the future.

How Can We Use Meaningful Activity to Help in Keeping Employees Connected?

As we think about how to keep our employees connected in this more distributed working world, the magic ingredient is to add meaningful activity to social interactions whenever and wherever you can. Instead of just trying to create more opportunities for people to gather virtually, create ways for them to gather with purpose.

The more that purpose is connected to an outcome or to making meaningful progress toward a shared goal, the better.

To get your wheels turning, below are a few examples to consider.

Life-Hacking Groups

Many people are struggling with how to work most effectively from home. Some are wrestling with their health while others are struggling with focus. Some are having relationship challenges while others are trying to balance parenting with working. Each of these people is likely struggling to figure things out on their own, searching for helpful resources, and experimenting to see what works.

You could create some groups around these issues where employees could meet to discuss their common challenges and what they are finding most helpful. Perhaps you ask or challenge them to capture the best three to five ideas from each discussion to be written up and shared on the company intranet with all employees.

Creating groups around specific issues employees are experiencing can help them figure out what works.

Problem-Solving Teams

If yours is an organization where work has been disrupted in a way that leaves people with some slack time in their schedule, consider applying that time toward tackling organizational challenges. Look at the issues that are known problems but which never get addressed because of a lack of time and resources. If you aren’t sure what they are, send out a short survey to employees or just start asking questions. Soon you’ll have a bigger list than you can tackle.

Prioritize the problems and ask employees to volunteer to be part of a temporary team to discuss, research, and propose solutions to these problems. Employees of all levels can both find and add great value in a process like this. This approach likely requires some facilitation to ensure that the group is focused and that everyone has the chance to participate. You need to be committed to taking some action as a result of the recommendations. If there’s limited budget or resources, ensure they know that upfront so they can use that in their process.

Shark Tank-Style Innovation Challenges

Much like the previous suggestion, if there’s slack time to be used, put it to use finding and pitching new products or services. Employees closest to the customer often have a clearer sense of their needs than anyone and are passionate about solving for them. Give these employees the freedom to explore and propose solutions. By having them pitch the solutions at the end creates a competitive energy that will bond the teams together.

Peer Coaching/Mentoring

The idea of peer coaching and mentoring might be a new one to you; it’s an idea that is relatively new to me. But it seems like an idea that is ideal for this time where people crave both connection and support. In short, the idea is that two coworkers are paired together and asked to complete a series of conversations together. Each person asks the other a series of questions, documents what they hear, and feeds that back to them with some thoughts or suggestions. Then, they switch roles and do the same thing over again.

I came to learn about this approach through my colleague, Aaron Hurst, who’s company Imperative provides a platform to facilitate peer coaching. With or without his tool to help, the process is one that is rich in meaningful activity. The peer coaching process fuels the need for connection, learning, and problem-solving. You could use a simple version of this to facilitate weekly one on one chats for those on your team. All people need is the questions, some basic instructions, and the time to do it.

You can read more about peer coaching here.

Sharing Meaningful Activity Is the Key to Building Connection

My focus right now is to find and highlight the opportunities within the chaos that has been created over the past few months. One of those is that our collective desire for connection has never been more pressing or urgent. If we meet that need with the right kind of opportunities, those fueled by meaningful activity, the connection created in your team and organization will build a foundation that will impact your organization positively for years to come.

 

If you’d like more content like this to arrive in your email box weekly, you can subscribe to this blog by clicking here.

 

Sign up for our free video series Igniting Employee Engagement. Make impact in your organization with fresh insights from more than 25 thought leaders and experts that you won’t hear anywhere else.

Employee Engagement for You: The Latest News April 2020
Employee Engagement for You: The Latest News April 2020 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

EmployeeEngagement For You

It feels like the world has been turned upside down in the last few months.

As we try to adjust to our new realities, riding the daily emotional rollercoaster that is life right now, it can be hard to stay grounded.

In the midst of all of this, there are two things I try to stay focused on.

First is self-care. Now more than ever, we need to take care of ourselves. Get some sleep. Exercise. Journal, meditate, talk to people you love—whatever makes you feel less out of control. It’s hard to care for others if we are a hot mess ourselves.

Second, move toward something positive. Throughout my entire life, one thing that has always proven true is that the best way to free myself from fear or a feeling of being trapped was to take action. Even a tiny step forward can feel like liberation.

If your circumstances are feeling daunting or overwhelming, if you feel stuck in fear, find some small thing you can do that moves you towards something better.

Action is a cure to fear. Keep moving.

Jason

P.S. If your organization is taking good care of people, you should nominate your work for an Employee Engagement Award before May 22. It’s a simple process and great recognition. Click here to learn more.

Stuff You Should Read

We are all feeling unsettled and unsure right now. Our sense of safety and normalcy has been lost. Lives and jobs have been lost. And we fear losing so much more. With loss, comes grief. Read: That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief

As the new reality of remote working evolves, we need to keep our eye on mental health. Even before these unprecedented times, “Freelancers were 86 percent more likely than office workers to self-report depression.” Read: The Coming Mental Health Crisis as Remote Working Surges

Crisis can reveal the best in us. And it has in many communities around the globe as neighbors reach out to support each other. Will we carry this renewed sense of community forward with us at home and work? Read: Coronavirus Reminds Us What Functioning Communities Look Like

stuff you should hear

If you aren’t familiar with Esther Perel, that should work is a relationshipchange today. She is a renowned relationship expert who has been turning her attention to the workplace. She recently appeared on Adam Grant’s podcast “WorkLife” to discuss relationships and work. Listen now.

stuff you should watch

We’ve seen some really great and really poor examples of leadership recently in business, politics, and elsewhere. This powerful TED video from Simon Sinek helps explain the difference between good and bad leadership. It feels particularly relevant right now.

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Employee Engagement for You: The Latest News March 2020
Employee Engagement for You: The Latest News March 2020 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

According to Scott Berkun, innovation is significant positive change.”

In case you haven’t noticed already, I’m trying something a little different with my emails lately. It felt like we needed some innovation to bring more value to your inbox.

Today is my first attempt at a new monthly newsletter format to share with you some resources that I find both important and interesting. My goal each month will be to share some articles, podcasts, and videos that can help us engage employees (and sometimes ourselves).

I hope you like it. Send me a note to let me know if this format feels like significant positive change. Love it, hate it, don’t care, whatever, I always love hearing from you. Just hit reply and talk to me.

Until next time, enjoy the content.

Jason

The fastest way to improve the work experience is to start with what you can control. Try some things with your team to find out what works, then share your story with others. This article provides some great ideas on where to start. Read: Nine Ways to Make Your Workday Better

Bad attitudes and toxic behavior can ruin a team or an office. Research has shown that negative emotions are contagious, but so are positive ones. To be a better manager, we need to understand “emotional contagions” and how to use them to our advantage. Read: Faster Than a Speeding Text: “Emotional Contagion” at Work.

Over the years, we’ve debated the link between compensation and engagement. But some recent research suggests that for our lowest paid employees, compensation may be far more important than we ever considered. Read: The key to lower suicide rates? Higher minimum wages.

Spending any time with Brené Brown content will make you a better human being. In this podcast conversation with Krista Tippett, she discusses her research on belonging. It touches on everything from vulnerability and authenticity to fear and spirituality. There are some profound insights to be found here for both life and the workplace. Listen now. 

Nataly Kogan, author of Happier Now, is on a mission to remind us to celebrate the women in our lives on March 8, International Women’s Day. I’m in. I hope you feel the same. She explains more in this short video.

How to Improve Employee Engagement: The One Word to Remember
How to Improve Employee Engagement: The One Word to Remember 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

When we realize that our team isn’t engaged, there’s a lot of advice out there for how to improve employee engagement.

More recognition.

More development.

More flexibility.

More autonomy.

More pizza and beer and ping pong.

More, more, more.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of factors that link to employee engagement.

Where should you start with your team?

How to Improve Employee Engagement: Getting Started

When I first had the opportunity to manage people, I remember the weight of feeling like I should always know what to do for them. They hired me to be a manager, so surely that meant I had the answers.

I didn’t.

So I read a lot of management books. I studied other managers to see what they did. I took advantage of every management training opportunity I could find.

And yet, I still wasn’t getting it right. This came to a head one day when one of the people on my team who I trusted the most came into my office, sat down, and said to me, “You are being a real a**hole lately.”

On some level, I’m proud of the fact that she felt like she could be that brutally honest with me. I had done something right. But I soon discovered I was doing a lot more wrong than right.

Don’t Manage by Assumption 

All of the reading, training, and observing I’d done equipped me with lots of ideas on how to best manage my team. But when choosing which one to use, I would lean on my assumptions about what my people needed or wanted.

I was often wrong.

When I was called out by my team member, it jarred me. I was clearly failing as a manager. So I did the only thing that I could think to do. I started asking questions.  I wanted to understand what I was getting wrong. I wanted to understand what my team needed that I wasn’t providing. I wanted to know how to be better.

It worked. I ultimately (it was a process) became a much better manager and leader. And, the thing that made that possible all boiled down to one word.

ASK.

In hindsight, it seems so obvious. But it’s a harder lesson to learn that I would have ever expected.

All You Have to Do Is Ask

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat with executive teams as they debated over what they should do to improve employee engagement or performance, observing how comfortable they were making decisions based on their assumptions about employees.

At some point in that conversation, I would interject and say something like, “You know, we don’t have to assume what employees want, we can go ask them. They are literally right over there.”

In the employment relationship, just like any relationship, assumptions are dangerous. They are also unnecessary.

If you want to know how to improve your relationship with your employees or customers (or friends, spouse, or kids), you don’t have to assume.

ASK.

They will tell you.

When they do, listen carefully. Then ask even more questions to understand better.

Take Action

DO SOMETHING to show that you care and that you are really listening–and then take action on it

If you want to improve employee engagement, happiness, performance, or any other factor for your team, ask them for some ideas, pick a few good ones, and make them happen. It’s that simple.

When I led the Best Places to Work team at Quantum Workplace, we were often asked if there was one common practice that we found in every organization with an award-winning culture. And the answer was simple.

Best Places to Work regularly ASK their employees for feedback about their experience, they LISTEN to that feedback to identify where changes were needed, and they TAKE ACTION on those things. This isn’t something they do once in a while. It is part of their DNA and how they manage people.

It truly is that simple. And it all starts with one word.

ASK.

If you’d like more content like this to arrive in your email box weekly, you can subscribe to this blog by clicking here.

Related Articles

Are You an Employee Engagement Dinosaur?

Asking for What You Want to Get More Employee Engagement

We Need to Stop Saying that 66% of Employees Are Not Engaged

 

Sign up for our free video series Igniting Employee Engagement. Make an impact in your organization with fresh insights from more than 25 thought leaders and experts that you won’t hear anywhere else.

Employee Engagement Happens in Moments
Employee Engagement Happens in Moments 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

Something really weird and awesome happened to me this morning.

Knowing I had a busy day of calls and meetings today, I decided to sneak into the gym for a quick run on the treadmill before the day spun away from me.

Before I share what happened next, a bit of context: Despite being a natural extrovert and preaching the importance of relationships everywhere in our lives, I am a standoffish loner at the gym. I make it my business not to have interpersonal interactions when I’m there.

This may stem from an awkward locker room experience many years ago or perhaps it’s just that I’m very focused on why I’m there (and it’s not to make friends). Regardless, I stay to myself when I’m working out.

Today was no different. I jumped on the treadmill, dialed up a podcast to feed my brain while I ran, and cranked it up. Before long, I had three solid, sweaty miles finished.

At some point during my run, a woman got on the treadmill next to me and started her workout. I didn’t pay much attention beyond the fact that someone was there.

As my run finished and I reduced speed to walk and cool down, I noticed the woman next to me turning toward me. Typically, this would raise some dread inside of me. I just want to be left alone at the gym.

But when I looked over at her, she extended her arm and made a fist. She was giving me a fist bump. I bumped her fist and then she turned back to her run.

What?

I don’t know this woman (at least I don’t think I do). But, for some reason, she decided to acknowledge the completion of my run today. And it was awesome.

I smiled and felt proud of my accomplishment. And then I went on with my day with a little extra energy in my step.

I don’t know why she did it. Maybe she does it all the time. Maybe she’s a personal trainer. I don’t know and I don’t care.

What I know is that simple moment of acknowledgment and connection mattered to me. It took only a few seconds. It cost nothing. And yet, here I sit writing about its impact.

This is a great reminder of the simplicity involved in creating a positive work experience for the people around us. We tend to assume that a solution to employee engagement has to be complicated or grand or involve a survey and technology.

That’s not the case. It is often as simple as taking a moment of time to acknowledge those around us. To offer a signal that we see and appreciate each other.

  • When is the last time you gave someone an unexpected fist bump or high five?
  • When is the last time you sent off a quick note to someone you work with just to acknowledge that you notice and appreciate all they do?
  • When is the last time you said thank you to the people who make your life easier at work?
  • When is the last time you said hi and smiled at someone you don’t know at work (or anywhere else)?

Those little moments can carry enormous positive impact.

Next time you are wondering how to improve engagement on your team, remember the fist bump and keep it simple.

 

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We Need to Stop Saying That 66% of Employees Are Not Engaged
We Need to Stop Saying That 66% of Employees Are Not Engaged 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

When we talk about employee engagement, one of the most commonly cited statistics comes from Gallup. I’m sure you’ve seen it: Only 1/3 of employees in the U.S. are engaged according to Gallup’s Q12 measure. That number is a more shocking 17% globally.

That also means that somewhere between 66% and 83% of employees are either “not engaged”—or worse, “actively disengaged” based on Gallup’s methodology.

It sounds pretty dire.

But I don’t care what Gallup says.

This is cited so much to create panic. The house is on fire, and we’re standing around watching it burn. We need to DO SOMETHING!

I’ve been guilty of using the same stat for exactly that reason. To get people’s attention. To jar them awake.

But there are some real problems with using Gallup’s data this way when making the case for change.

We Are Looking at the Employee Engagement Data Incorrectly

It is reasonable to debate whether Gallup’s measure of engagement is the right one. Yes, the Q12 is one of the most well-known and certainly one of the oldest measures of employee engagement. But that doesn’t make it the right one. We can (and should) argue over whether only a third of employees are engaged. The Q12 is one among many ways to measure engagement. And, there is contrary data available from other sources.

But even if you question whether the Q12 is the best way to measure employee engagement, the important thing about their data is that Gallup has been measuring engagement the same way for over 20 years. The consistency of the measure is the more important factor when looking at it.

Instead of fixating on employee engagement levels, the more significant finding in Gallup’s data is that the results have only nominally changed over the past 20 years. This strongly suggests that despite all of our efforts, the employee’s experience at work hasn’t dramatically improved in the past couple of decades.

That is what should concern you. And it should wake us up to the reality that what we’ve been doing around employee engagement isn’t cutting it. We need to fundamentally rethink how we design work and the daily experience of work to better enable employee performance and happiness. What we’ve been doing and the changes we’ve made so far aren’t adequate.

The Language of Gallup’s Model Is a Problem

The second big issue with the Gallup data is that the language of their model is misleading and problematic.

In Gallup’s model, an employee can only fall into one of three categories: engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged. I don’t know about you, but my own experience with work has always made it hard for me to swallow that there’s only a small line that separates engaged from disengaged.

Engagement is a product of human emotion. It’s driven by how we feel about work. We don’t experience emotions as a polarity. That would suggest that we have emotional switches like those we use to control our lights. You are either happy or not, angry or not, in love or not.

You don’t need a PhD in psychology to know how ridiculous that is. Emotions happen on a spectrum. You can be wildly happy, sort of happy, or a little happy. You can be a little angry, very angry, or in a blind rage. You get the picture.

We need to stop talking about engagement like an on/off switch.

And yet that’s what Gallup’s data seems to suggest: a minority of our employees are switched on and a bunch more are switched off. That’s just not how it works.

When we talk to our leaders about our engaged versus our disengaged employees, it paints a picture that isn’t helpful. Engagement exists on a spectrum, just like every other factor driven by human emotion. The goal isn’t to move you across an arbitrary line so we can give you a new label (“Congratulations, your engagement survey score improved by 0.2%, which means you are now engaged!”). Our goal should be to help everyone have an experience of work that increases their positive emotions about work to improve engagement.

Labeling people in the workplace is almost always a bad idea. We need to be far more careful about the labels and language we use when talking about employee engagement.

The Bottom Line on Employee Engagement

Let’s stop saying that two-thirds of employees are disengaged. Yes, we need to do better at engaging employees, but the story is far more complicated and nuanced than that. Both our understanding and our language needs to reflect that complexity if we are to move the needle.

Stop labeling people as “engaged” and “disengaged” or “not engaged.” Better yet, stop labeling people. Labels aren’t helping. Focus instead on understanding each employee’s experience and making it better.

Pay more attention to the trend lines. Gallup’s trendline is important because it shows us making little progress and that change is clearly needed. If you measure engagement internally at your organization, the same is true for you. Don’t worry about the labels, focus instead on whether your trendline is moving in a positive direction.

Be thoughtful about how you use data and statistics. The shock factor might seem valuable in the moment but think about the ripple effects that message may leave behind.

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Assumptions, Projection, and Other Ways to Kill Engagement at Work
Assumptions, Projection, and Other Ways to Kill Engagement at Work 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

A wise friend is fond of saying, “If only people would conform to our expectations of them.”

It’s her way of reminding us (and probably herself) that much of the drama that exists in our lives with other people starts with us. And that if we’d accept people for who they are and where they are instead of projecting on them how we think they “should be,” everyone would be happier.

When Others Don’t Behave the Way You Expect, This Can Kill Employee Engagement

Throughout my career, most of my most frustrating experiences at work were rooted in my frustration that someone, usually my boss, wasn’t behaving in the way I wanted them to.

I’ve had bosses who couldn’t communicate with me in the way I wanted. Others who couldn’t create a vision for me in the way I wanted it. Others who didn’t support me or my development the right way.

In most of these cases, my response to these unmet expectations can be summarized in one word: drama. I got frustrated, irritated, and sometimes angry. This, in turn, invited my bosses to be frustrated, irritated, and sometimes angry with me.

The irony in all of this is that in nearly every case, my boss and I actually wanted the same thing. In fact, they usually were trying to help me get what I wanted.  They just couldn’t do it in the specific way I thought they should.

So…drama. What a waste.

Projecting our expectations of others to behave or be only the way we think they should damages a relationship. When relationships suffer at work, our engagement takes a hit.

Making Assumptions Can Kill Employee Engagement

Another enemy of engagement making assumptions. Just last week, I was worrying that something I’d said had offended someone close to me. I stressed about it for a day before finally apologizing.

It turns out, I hadn’t offended this person at all. It was a faulty assumption I’d created in my mind..

We make assumptions all the time, particularly when someone behaves in a way that we didn’t anticipate.

  • Why didn’t she speak up to defend me?
  • Why did they schedule that meeting without including me?
  • Why didn’t they keep me in the loop on that?

When things like this pop up, our default reaction is to assume the worst.

  • She’s trying to distance herself from me.
  • They are trying to undermine me.
  • There must be something shady going on.

Negative assumptions lead to drama in relationships.

How Can We Avoid Our Tendency to Kill Employee Engagement?

Assumptions and projections are something I’ve wrestled without throughout my life. As a result, I notice how frequently these happen at work. It’s so common that we don’t even notice that it is happening a lot of the time.

Solving these issues isn’t easy because it’s so ingrained in our human nature. But there are mindsets and practices I’ve found to be incredibly helpful.

  1. Be clear about what you need and ask for it. In any relationship, when the other person isn’t behaving the way you expect, check in with your own expectations. What is it exactly that you need from this person that you aren’t getting? Maybe you need your spouse to help with the chores without you feeling like you have to prod. Or maybe you need your boss to give you more space to do your job. Regardless of what it is, be crystal clear on what you need, why you need it, and how having it would affect you. Then, share that with the other person. Most of the time, the other person wasn’t clear on your needs and is willing to work with you to find a way to make it happen. It may not be exactly as you imagined, but as long as you get what you need, you’ll be happier.
  2. Assume positive intentions. When someone else behaves in a way that you didn’t expect or doesn’t make sense to you, instead of making an immediate, worst-case assumption, interrupt your thinking. Remind yourself that the other person probably has positive intentions and means no harm. I like to practice this with my kids. When we encounter someone who does something rude (like cutting us off in traffic), instead of my default response, “A-hole!” I say something like, “Wow, they must be in a hurry. I hope everything is okay.”My kids will occasionally make up stories about what might be going on (“they are rushing to the hospital” or “they are late to work”). This simple act of interrupting a negative assumption and replacing it with a positive one is a powerful way to eliminate drama before it starts.
  3. Have the conversation. All too often, we get caught up in this drama vortex. We project our unreasonable expectations on others. They don’t behave as we expect them to, so we attribute some shady intentions to them and soon, it feels like we are at battle.I’ve been through this cycle before, feeling like I was at battle with someone at work, without the other person even knowing it was going on. It all happened in my head. I had transformed this person into my nemesis without ever even having a conversation with them about whatever was bothering me.
    In my experience, whenever I started to feel this cycle coming on, the best way to beat it was to figure out what was bothering me and go talk to that person about it. The conversation can be pretty simple: “Jeff, in the meeting yesterday when you responded to my proposal the way you did, it felt like you hadn’t really considered it and had no plan to do so. I hope that’s not what you intended because my team and I put a lot of work into it. It didn’t feel good to me, so I wanted to just come and talk it through with you.”So much of our workplace angst could be resolved if we’d just have conversations like these instead of harboring our negative assumptions and letting them fester.

Engagement flows when our relationship with work and those who do it is healthy and positive. This isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it.

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A Hard Truth About Employee Engagement
A Hard Truth About Employee Engagement 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

There was a point in my career, probably 18 or 20 years or so ago, that I would have argued vehemently that creating a workplace culture that engages employees was vital to sustaining a profitable business. I believed in my heart that it was an imperative.

At the time, I was an HR leader working at an organization where my CEO really believed (and invested) in the value of people not only as employees but as human beings with lives beyond work.

For me, it was the perfect place to practice HR. While my CEO was pragmatic in how he ran this company of 800+ people, he was always open to considering new ways to help people develop and grow. He came to believe that work was a vehicle for employees to pursue their dreams. And the more we could create an experience of work that supported that, the better we’d do.

And we did well. During my 3 1/2 years working for this organization, we invested heavily in our culture and the development of our people, most of whom worked in call centers. As a result, our turnover began to decrease to nearly half what it had historically been. This along with other efforts, led to us doubling our revenue per employee over those short few years. An astonishing result for a company of this size.

We did so well, in fact, that the company peaked in value and was acquired by a much larger call center company. It was at this point in my career that I was most dogmatic in my belief that the only way to produce sustainable, profitable business results was through an engaged workplace.

But, then I spent the next couple of years working as a VP of HR for the new organization. I took on the support of large legacy call centers where turnover was in the range of 200% annually. Given my mindset at the time, I climbed up on my righteous high horse and started working on how to create a more engaging work environment in these call centers.

And I met resistance at every turn by the local management. Sure, they were interested in decreasing turnover as long as it didn’t require any real change. In reality, they mainly wanted to ensure that my team could keep up with recruiting enough new hires to backfill for the turnover.

I fought this battle for a year and made very little progress. I wanted to talk about culture and engagement, they just wanted to talk about recruiting. Eventually, it hit me.

This company who I now worked for had been in business for several decades. And they had been quite successful by most financial measures. They were 40,000 employees strong at the time.

And, near as I could tell, they did it all without caring at all about employee engagement.

Their business model assumed high employee turnover. So, when they priced business, they built in the cost of supporting 200% annual turnover.  Managers, rather than learning how to engage and develop employees, learned how to churn and burn people the best they could to maintain their minimum performance standards. And, they had gotten good enough at it to keep their customers satisfied.

It was black and white evidence that my belief in employee engagement as the only way to succeed was wrong. You can make money a lot of different ways in business–many of those ways involve exploiting, undervaluing, or otherwise taking advantage of people (employees, customers, etc.).

This was the hard truth I learned.  Employee engagement isn’t an imperative of succeeding in business. You can survive and succeed without caring at all about employees as people. I’ve lived through it (as I’m sure many of you have too).

Knowing this is important when you are trying to convince executives to invest in employee engagement. They know this isn’t a succeed or fail discussion because they’ve spent most of their careers working for successful companies who would sacrifice people for short term financial rewards without hesitating.

Investing in culture and engagement isn’t the ONLY path, but it’s the RIGHT path. Treating people well at work, caring about them as humans, making sure they feel included and appreciated–all of the things we typically roll together under the heading of “employee engagement,” is first and foremost simply the right thing to do.

There’s very little debate in any organization that treating customers with care, respect, appreciation, and intention is critical to succeeding. And yet, some still question the importance of doing the same for our employees.

The work we chose to do to create more human, engaging work experiences isn’t only about better business results, it’s about achieving them in a way that fulfills everyone involved–employees, customers, shareholders, communities. It’s also about creating the opportunity for each person to find their potential both at work and in life.

There are certainly other paths to business results. Some of them may even be easier to travel as business leaders.

Employee engagement isn’t simply about doing what works. It’s also about doing what’s right.

“The time is always right to do what is right.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.