Occupational Services to Industry

Improving Performance

The Psychology of Employee Engagement

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The Psychology of Employee Engagement – It’s Not Just About Dress Down Fridays!

Contemporary thinking around employee diversity in the workplace points to a simple fact: Everybody is different. Consequently, managing people as if they are all identical doesn’t work because employees manifest distinct differences. This variance is driven by personality, motivational, emotional and relationship factors. Therefore, a critical starting point with any engagement strategy is to understand your employees.

Leaders at every level need to be able to accurately identify the specific characteristics that are most important to the people who report to them. The performance management (PM) process is the key vehicle. However, there is little point in performance/value statements and frameworks, unless they are embedded. This is achieved by using the PM process to undertake a meaningful dialogue to understand ‘how’ and ‘why’ an individual is aligning themselves with any given performance parameters. It is about understanding their commitment and connection to the business so goals and objectives can be tailored to their personal DNA.

A second critical point to remember is engagement is not about happiness, “happy” doesn’t mean employees are necessarily hard at work focusing on the organisation’s key agendas. A happy employee can and often will deliver the bare minimum required to achieve. A fully engaged employee can see and feel how they fit within the business; they will demonstrate complete autonomy and show an affinity with the nature of the business. Their efforts towards quality, service, selling, processes and people will be unhindered and unrestricted.

We now turn to the third critical point, communication. Relevant business communication is the lifeblood of employee engagement, in addition to providing the right communications tools to ensure key messages are woven into and active in the collective consciousness of the workforce. Communication strategy should be about creating an ‘organisational cause’ that employees can rally to. Mission statements go some way to achieving this, but they often ring hollow with a large number of employees. A key human need is to believe in something. Without organisational affinity, employees will still deliver goals and objectives, but their heart will be focused on activities and goals outside the organisation. Continued communications on the fiscal, “more for less,” “extra mile,” et al reinforces a negative and selfish organisational personality. Most individuals feel a sense of personal reward from altruism. It is therefore important to create a humanity around the organisational cause, and craft messages that reflect that humanity: what benefits does the organisation deliver, what are the impacts of these benefits, and on a one to one level how does the individuals’ role contribute.

When considering motivational factors, we identify another potential communications strategy: most people want to succeed, due to the personal status and standing that brings. Further, in its essence self improvement is about personal survival. Consequently, it becomes important to ensure that goals and objectives have tangible outcomes, so people can sense the reality of their achievements. It is also important to ensure that forums are in place to communicate employee successes. It is not enough to create the backdrop to success, any clear wins at every level, must be acknowledged, or disengagement will occur.

Strategies to create organisational connection are also critical to employee engagement. All goals and objectives, psychologically, are about participation and it is needless to say that this participation must be meaningful to the individual. Meaningful participation can be created by demonstrating the value of an activity, and this needs to be communicated clearly. Where possible, it also helps to create a brand identity for the activity, which in turn makes it more tangible for those stakeholders involved. Connection strategies facilitate buy-in and have the potential to create energy, pride and a sense of belonging.

There are a number of arguments that propose engagement cannot be accurately measured, i.e. it is a non-tangible construct. However, there are very definite manifestations of disengagement: looking for another job, dissatisfaction, lack of challenge, unbalanced workload, sickness, absence and frayed relationships. Not to mention stress, burnout and associated manifestations. Employee Opinion Surveys are a useful tool to gauge these elements. However, it is not just about analysis and top level scrutiny. Results need to be disseminated throughout the business, and local team leaders should be responsible for aspects of workplace wellbeing. Engagement is more likely to improve from the bottom up. Each front-line manager needs to be given their own results and held accountable for improving them.

Finally, we turn to autonomy. Most goals and objectives driven from the top down require a degree of compliance. However, compliance does not equate engagement. Compliance, without the need for independent thought, will often lead to resentment and dissatisfaction. Effective delegation elicits trust and belonging. Autonomy doesn’t have to be a cultural free for all, it can be balanced, by allowing flexibility within core strategic objectives. It is about giving employees the freedom to make decisions, but this has to sit within a culture that allows mistakes, i.e. ‘we are where we are’ attitude focused on pragmatic problem solution and not blame orientated reaction.

A lot of managers think engagement is about picnics and parties; dress-down Fridays, Employee of the Month awards, or additional benefits. The psychological truth is neither carrot nor stick work in any absolute sense. Key drivers of engagement are personal growth, recognition, open dialogue and involvement. Organisations whose employees have pride, feel as though they belong and are able to use their unique talents to contribute to goals and objectives are the ones that have truly engaged their employees.


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