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Employee Engagement: Reality v Buzzword

The buzzword is ‘employee engagement’ is the new mantra seen as a broad cure for corporate maladies and poor productivity that fails to meet company objectives and targets. Employee engagement is also seen as a step towards employee retention: in part, this is true, but the common ground begins and ends with employee trust and credibility of the employer brand – the rest components of employee engagement hardly matter in employee retention.

Employee EngagementAnyway, to get back to the point, employee engagement seeks employees to be at their peak performance levels and tries to do this through different methods and approaches. The reality is, unplanned employee engagement exercises that ignore the need to first create a receptive and trusting audience end up as wasteful.

Foolish managers are quick to denounce failed employee engagement exercises as similar to strewing pearls before swine, thus attempting to shift the focus from their own inefficiencies to inability of employees to receive their sermons. Smart managers do get employees engaged enough to contribute real value to business, and ‘learned' managers get lost in theories and debates on definitions of ‘employee engagement' and the 20+ drivers of employee engagement marked by researchers like Blessing White, Gallup, Towers Perrin and others.

But the reality is ‘employee engagement' works, if done properly, and works wonders. Employee engagement directly affects key corporate performance areas like productivity, customer service and loyalty, retention, turnover, - and most importantly in meeting business objectives.

An ideal state of employee engagement

While reality rarely reflects ideal situations, for the purpose of creating benchmarks and tuning exercises in employee engagement, ideal instances are helpful. Following is an instance I once heard, it is not mine, and I cannot remember where I read it – but it deserves retelling to illustrate an ideal state of employee engagement:

A congressional visit to NASA was on to decide whether the expensive space program should continue to receive funding. During the tour, a group of delegates came upon a janitor mopping the floor in after hours. A delegate asked the janitor, “What are you doing here after hours?” the janitor said, “I am helping to put a man on the moon.”

This is ideal employee engagement, where an employee shares the vision, mission, and objectives of an organization, and understands that his/her contribution, in its own manner, helps the organization reach its goal. Yes, an employee is engaged, when he is convinced that his simple act of mopping the floor, helps the organization to attain its goal of putting a man on the moon, and by doing his given work, he is helping attain the bigger goal.

A working definition of employee engagement

I feel a working definition of employee engagement can help a lot rather than getting lost in theories and the 20 or more drivers of employee engagement, which are too difficult for ordinary mortals to grasp or put into practice.

When defining employee engagement, not for books or research, but for use in corporate workplaces finding the answers to the following questions help:
  1. What is the nature of relationship of the employee with his/her boss?
  2. Is the ‘boss' providing consistent feedback, and following a customized development plan for the employee?
  3. Does the employee possess clear idea of company objectives and the role/importance of his/her contributions?
  4. Are the contributions of the employee regularly measured and reported?
  5. What is the incentive system for rewarding the achievement of performance goals?
Employee engagement is there when an employee is in peak performance pushing himself or herself to attain company objectives by doing his/her given work, and his/her work, manager, and the general work environment are aligned with the needs and desires of the employee.

Some key drivers of employee engagement

As I mentioned above, there are too many researched drivers of employee engagement, but for me, those that are most practical include:
  1. Trust and integrity of managers
  2. Challenges that stimulate interest in the employee
  3. Alignment of employee performance and company performance
  4. Career growth opportunities
  5. Respect of the employer brand
  6. Nature of co-workers and managers
  7. Positive company efforts for employee development
How does an ‘engaged employee' make a difference

Though it may seem a tad bit out of context, the difference between an ordinary employee and an ‘engaged employee' is best illustrated by Peter Drucker's assertion as to why a financial man would never understand business:

“"I can say that no financial man will ever understand business because financial people think a company makes money. A company makes shoes, and no financial man understands that. They think money is real. Shoes are real. Money is the end result. What is a business? The only function of business is to create customer [value] and to innovate." - Peter Drucker

Engaged employees do not just ‘do their jobs' but engaged employees use their talents, drive innovation within the company, and help to build. They are much more than an employee who attends office to do his/her ‘tasks' diligently, just because he/she is getting ‘paid.'