In its noble quest to find the elixir of employee productivity, every few years the HR fraternity finds a new trend to latch on to. The flavour of the last decade or so has been “employee engagement” – that heady mix of satisfaction, motivation, loyalty, and advocacy.
It has often been claimed to be the one true path for organizations to reach peak productivity. The brightest minds in HR have been working on it and as a consequence, it has been the subject of intense opining. But not everything you read is true.
We’ve seen a decade of changes in the business world – open office plans, Friday potlucks, flex-work, telecommuting. Organizations have tried to build yellow brick roads to accommodate everyone’s needs yet engagement levels are getting worse and not better. High employee attrition rates and low engagement levels still cost companies in a big way.
We have already talked about why you should run survey employee engagement surveys and how engaged employees and disengaged employees can impact the growth of the company. But in and of itself, engagement is an abstract idea, something intangible. Even as discussions of engagement have become ubiquitous, myths abound and managers end up forming wrong opinions about what motivates their employees.
In this article, we’ve put together a list of some common myths about employee engagement that far too many leaders are still putting stock into.
1. Perks Equal Engagement
Very often we see employers peddling benefits as a means of buying their way out of the engagement problem. Ping-pong tables, play stations, gyms in the office to club memberships, employee wellness programs to free meals and nap times at work, we’ve probably seen it all. Sure, all this is trendy and exciting in the short term. But it is also the laziest, not to say, the most expensive way of approaching engagement and the value only goes so far.
Such perks can help people stay longer, but won’t make them pour their heart and soul into the work. They can at best be viewed as add-ons that can bolster your engagement efforts. In and of themselves, they cannot replace the day-to-day work on organizational culture.
Discretionary effort, the cornerstone of employee engagement, is largely founded on an emotional connect, something that you can’t buy but have to earn, every single day.
2. Higher Compensation Translates Into Engaged Employees
This holds only for a certain segment of employees – mostly contract and entry-level workers.
As an employee’s career progresses, the marginal utility of every additional raise keeps diminishing. For the majority of middle and senior managers money is usually not the top priority. What matters more to them is recognition, work-life balance and of course, a sense that they can further their career as a result of working with a specific company or in a certain role.
Meaningful work and having a deeper connection with their organization’s vision and mission are also becoming increasingly important factors in engagement, especially with the millennials.
While people may certainly stay on with an employer who pays more, retention does not mean engagement or even loyalty. Having a flat bench does not translate into productivity or high performance. It only makes employee engagement seem like a bigger cost centre than it has to be. With assured bonuses, employees’ expectations will rise and if a company fails to keep up, the disappointment will trump any engagement achieved.
3. Engagement Is Just a Fancy Word for Satisfaction
Engagement and satisfaction are terms that sound similar. The two are also connected, but not synonymous. Look closely and there’s a world of difference.
Engaged employees are passionate, driven and strongly invested in the company’s success. They try to improve processes and outcomes and try to add real value to the business. Typically, the are also happy and satisfied with their jobs.
Satisfied employees are simply content with the compensation, perks, benefits, etc. but are not necessarily engaged. Satisfied employees are happy with current practices and do not concern themselves with evolving and improving.
Satisfaction is based on personal happiness, while engagement indicates a sense of connection and commitment to the organization. While satisfied employees may not be “troublemakers”, they won’t necessarily perform better than unsatisfied employees. But, engaged employees are internally driven to improve job performance.
For long now it was thought that satisfied employees are productive employees. At some point, we convinced ourselves that engagement was about perfecting the employees’ circumstances and removing their hassles. It is reasonable, but the wrong assumption about human motivation and behaviour, at least in the context of work.
In the real world of work, it is impossible to please all employees simultaneously. Our individual needs and desires are not only vastly different but often at odds with each other.
4. Disengaged Employees Are the Bad Employees
Not all disengaged employees are not “actively” disengaged. Yes, there is a difference.
Actively disengaged employees are the most disconnected from work. They often feel under-utilized and believe they do not get meaningful work. They undermine their colleagues, they complain and have a generally bad attitude about everything. If not identified and addressed quickly, they can spread this attitude to others in their teams and the organization at large.
Do you know how one rotten apple can spoil the whole basket? The analogy perfectly suits this kind of employee. Actively disengaged employees are a drag for the whole organization.
Disengaged employees, on the other hand, are employees who are disoriented and potentially exhausted. They lack passion, and enthusiasm for their work. This could be for a variety of reasons. But all said and done, they are not trying to actively damage the business. It’s quite likely that some of them are still working hard even though they may dislike some aspects of their current workplace.
Once this difference is understood, it is easy to see how disengaged employees represent an opportunity, rather than a threat. With enough effort, you could course correct and wind up with an engaged employee.
5. Disengaged Employees Can’t Be Fixed
Not true. Disengaged employees are, sort of, on the fence. Whether they will go the way of “active disengagement” or “engagement” depends to a large extent on the organization’s attitude towards them.
Once identified, these employees need to be addressed squarely, but in a reassuring rather than threatening manner.
The organization should take determined steps to address the root causes of their disengagement. Your disengaged employee may well have been satisfied and enthusiastic before something soured the deal – maybe it was a new manager or a new location. Sit down with him and address the situation head-on. Chances are, you will turn him back into a motivated, productive asset.
6. Employee Engagement Is Solely an HR Responsibility
Employee engagement is about people. HR is also about people. It is certainly the HR department’s job to design and implement employee-friendly policies and practices that attract and retain talent. But can they alone be responsible for keeping employees engaged?
Not really, but it’s a trap countless organizations have fallen into.
HR professionals have a unique vantage point that can be useful in “measuring” engagement levels and suggesting remedies, but improving engagement is everyone’s job. It’s every employee’s job to participate and truthfully highlight concerns when a survey is run. It is every manager’s responsibility to make sure the survey recommendations are followed in their teams. It is the leadership’s responsibility to allocate time and resources towards engagement work.
The HR departments can be effective facilitators of the process, but to think they alone can affect any meaningful change will be foolhardy. Not even the best HR minds are in a position to independently take the actions required to influence engagement levels.
7. Measuring Engagement Does Not Fix It
Of course, it doesn’t, at least not on its own, but it’s a start.
Many organizations recognize the importance of employee engagement, but end up misdirecting their efforts based on hearsay. If the company down the road is doing Whacky Wednesdays to engage their teams then surely Friday Fundays will fix yours. If only things worked that way. Each set of employees, each organization’s culture and the interaction of the two can vary vastly.
How to go about raising your company’s engagement levels can be a vexing problem. The most sorted and logical way to begin the engagement process is an engagement survey of your employees. Finding out what makes your people tick (or ticked off!) is the first step toward change.
Making visible efforts to measure employee engagement in the form of surveys can often fuel the fire of hope and anticipation among employees. Even the mere announcement of an initiative like an employee survey is known to raise employee performance in the short term. When their voices are heard and given importance to, it has a very obvious impact on employees’ motivation levels. It shows the organization’s intent to improve engagement.
However, one must be careful to not leave a survey at that. Careful follow up based on survey findings is an absolute must. In the absence of tangible action, hope can quickly turn into disillusionment. While planning a survey, the organization must also plan and allocate resources for the implementation of survey recommendations.
8. Everyone Tells the Truth on Employee Engagement Surveys
Employee dishonesty on surveys is often cited as the top reason to not have them.
People lie on surveys. Yes, of course, they do. Sometimes these are small lies, sometimes big ones and sometimes people don’t even know they’re lying. People have been known to lie even on customer surveys. Why do we do it? Human nature.
An employee engagement survey at work has much higher stakes than a simple customer survey. As an employee, you’re being asked to critically analyze and give feedback for your workplace, your manager, and even senior leaders. It can feel risky to tell the whole truth. And when the HR makes such a fuss making everyone complete the survey, employees are bound to be a bit cautious, if not outright suspicious.
When employee surveys are an infrequent occurrence or the results have not been implemented in the past, employees are likely to give non-committal answers just maintain the status quo. Why rock the boat for something inconsequential?
But there are conditions, which if adhered to, can help draw real and honest feedback from employees. The first being to ensure complete anonymity. When employees are assured they will not be singled out, they are more likely to be candid. Second, the survey should be designed and run professionally. The length and language of the survey must be calibrated carefully. Thirdly, have a seamless communication strategy – why is the survey being conducted, what will be done with the results, etc. Prepare managers for any potential personal criticism and suggestions that may come up in the survey. Assure them that survey scores will not be connected to performance ratings or compensation.
Lastly, results and recommendations must be shared with the participants, if not all then at least the highlights. Nobody wants to fill in dead-end surveys where your responses seem to be going into a black hole.
Outsourcing the survey to a third-party service provider can help address all of these conditions while making the whole process time and resource-efficient.
The idea of employee engagement is constantly being reimagined. It no longer has a singular definition. It is different strokes for different folks. There will never be a perfect workplace, and even the so-called “great places to work” have people issues to deal with. Having said that, organizations need to work towards building a workplace that makes people want to work.
Employee engagement strategies need to be customized and multidimensional. Organizations need to be far more invested than handing out gift cards once a year. At the same time, they need to be cautious of indulging in a “participation trophy” mindset, where every little accomplishment is praised to the point that recognition effectively means nothing.
As strategies, technology and work methods evolve, companies have an amazing opportunity to tap into the benefits of a more committed workforce. Easier said than done, but it’s certainly a worthy pursuit. After all, when you get it right, the rewards of an engaged workforce are huge and everyone stands to gain.