Focusing on strengths and passion: a fresh take on employee engagement

Focusing on strengths and passion: a fresh take on employee engagement

We've all read the research. Companies with high employee engagement outperform their competitors. Yet for all the research that's been done to identify the critical role of employee engagement, the latest reports on engagement are still dismal.

Willis Towers Watson’s Global findings report for the 2016 Global Talent Management and Rewards, and Global Workforce Studies showed that:

  • Only 37% of employees are highly engaged
  • A full quarter (25%) are disengaged
  • The remaining 38% fall into the following two categories: Unsupported (17% engaged, but lack enablement and/or energy) and detached (21% feel enabled and/or energized but lack a sense of traditional engagement)

According to the Willis Towers Watson report, these low levels of sustainable engagement leave employers vulnerable to high turnover, with just 41% of workers saying they plan to stay with their employer for the next two years.

These stats present employers with an opportunity to boost employee engagement, reduce turnover and experience better business outcomes in the process.

Employee engagement defined

Before we look at how to improve employee engagement, let's take a look at some definitions:

The extent to which employees feel committed because of a big idea and a big purpose. (Prahalad, 2008)

Employees make a commitment to stay and engage if "promises made are kept." (HBR, 2008)

Engagement is the extent to which employees enjoy and believe in what they do, feel valued for it and are willing to spend their intellectual effort to make the organization successful. (HCI, 2010)

Engagement is both about the work environment and the work experience. According to HCI, employees who are engaged:

  • Use their talents every day
  • Provide a consistent level of high performance
  • Build connections and professional networks
  • Are committed to the company and its values
  • Have high energy
  • Broaden what they do and build on it

How do you measure engagement?

There are numerous surveys and tools used to measure employee engagement. Most focus on measuring factors that are important to high performers. They tend to be about workplace, culture and talent practice, not compensation and benefits. Some drivers are at the organizational level, some at the personal, team and manager level.

Engagement surveys typically come down to measuring things like how well you give employees:

  • Direction and a larger context for their goals/work
  • The opportunity to do their best
  • Feedback/praise/recognition for their performance/progress
  • Opportunities for development and career advancement
  • An effective relationship with their manager

One thing that's interesting to note about many of the employee engagement surveys and metrics: most of the top drivers of engagement are manager related.

HCI also suggests some alternate metrics for measuring employee engagement:

  • Percentage of employees participating in referral programs
  • Percentage of engagement surveys returned
  • Participation in company events
  • Number of internal job applications
  • Number of recommendations for improvement
  • Activity in internal blogs, wikis and systems
  • Participation in knowledge sharing activities and communities of practice
  • Number of sick days taken
  • Number of returning employees

Tracking some of these metrics can help in organizations that are too small to conduct a formal engagement survey. You could also use them to corroborate or challenge engagement survey data.

What can managers do to improve engagement?

The obvious answer would be to simply adopt performance management best-practices: give employees clear SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-Bound) goals that are linked to high-level organizational goals, assign them development plans to address skill gaps and professional/career aspirations, give them regular feedback, coaching and recognition on their performance, maintain an ongoing, two-way dialogue with each employee about their performance and development, etc.

But Marcus Buckingham, author of First Break All the Rules, and Donald Clifton suggest a twist…

Focus on maximizing strengths

Instead of focusing on trying to fix faults, as many performance management processes and practices do, managers should focus on maximizing strengths. Buckingham and Clifton have found that organizations obtain greater results from leveraging their employees' strengths.

Similarly, Zenger and Miller in The Extraordinary Leader present a model for engaged deployment:

  • The individual has certain competencies and experiences that make them qualified for the opportunity or the job.
  • Organizational needs (e.g., jobs, projects, etc.) that exist need to be filled capably.
  • If the work is something the employee is passionate about, they will be more engaged and productive.

The sweet spot — where competency, opportunity and passion come together — is something to aspire to in assignments and deployment opportunities.

For managers, this means:

  • Giving employees the opportunity to do their best at work every day. They can do this by assigning goals and job responsibilities that fit with and leverage the individual's knowledge, skills, experience, strengths and interests, and that tap into their passions. As part of this, managers need to ensure employees' goals are SMART. Employees need to have the knowledge/skills/experience to accomplish their goals, but also the time, resources, autonomy and authority.
  • Focusing more on leveraging strengths than correcting faults (see Giving Effective Feedback: Make Sure to Include the Positives). When giving feedback, spend more time telling employees what they did or do well, than trying to correct small faults. Do root cause analysis of great performance and try to replicate the conditions that support that performance.
  • Having a regular, ongoing, two-way dialogue with each employee about expectations, and their performance and development. Develop a caring relationship with each employee. Get to know them as individuals.

In short, excelling at performance management.

Read how others have engaged their workforce

By automating the performance management process and ensuring employees get the feedback, recognition and development they crave, UW Credit Union has increased employee engagement and retention. They’ve also reduced the time spent by HR and for managers to do the administrative work to complete and process employee evaluations.

Clark Nuber, a CPA and consulting firm, wanted to revamp its performance appraisal process so they could empower employees and more effectively address challenges with retention. Since moving their appraisal process to the cloud, they’ve had several positive outcomes: high performers have a more complete picture of their performance, partners and senior managers have reporting that links performance with other areas of the business, and HR is saving time rolling out appraisals every year.

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