Define “employee engagement.” Don’t worry if you’re having trouble, because I haven’t found a definition either. In fact, researchers don’t even agree on what employee engagement is. I tend to think of it as being related to a willingness to put in discretionary effort and attention over and above doing the job, but that’s an informal definition. I’ve watched as hundreds, if not thousands of companies have paid unbelievable amounts of money to get consulting for a construct that scientists can’t even define (and those who bring me on for “employee engagement” quickly find that I drill down to different terms!). That said, even if you just picked a definition of engagement and went with it, and actually tried to implement that in your company, you might discover that the initiative totally fails (I get brought in to clean up those messes every now and then), and the reason is that your company is lacking the infrastructure that enables employees to do and be their best. Without it, any engagement initiative you take is going to be money down the drain.
Here are five things to work on that are far more important than employee engagement:
1) Knowing how to manage
There’s a saying that people don’t leave jobs — they leave bosses. I am continually surprised at the number of times I’ve heard of someone being promoted to manager and then given little (if any!) training on how to be a manager. This leads to problematic power dynamics, micromanagement, dropped balls, or worse, and it also leads to the talent jumping ship. When managers can coordinate well without careening into a pitfall, employees will be in a position to do their best work.
2) Incentives that inhibit teamwork
How do people get promoted in your company? Most of the time, they do so by standing out. This is just fine, except when you need people to work together on a team. Indeed, most firms’ performance incentives are related to individual performance, even when the day-to-day tasks are team-based. You can save a lot on consultant fees if your reward structure is consistent with the culture you want for your company!
3) Inflexible or stupid policies
Do your salaried employees punch a clock? Do you block social media on the computers when your employees can get it easily on their phones? Do you deny people sick leave when they haven’t accrued enough days? In all three of those cases, the reason for the policy is rooted in mistrust of employees, and this is a good time to ask yourself why in the world you would ever hire an employee you don’t trust! Not only that, but nearly all silly policies backfire. If you train your employees to watch the clock, rest assured that they shall, and they will gladly go home at 5 PM. If you insist that people get social media only on their phones, keep in mind that it loads more slowly and takes longer to type anything, but people are used to that and will gladly waste even more time on social media as a result. And then there’s that whole coming-in-sick thing — that’s begging for trouble! Forcing a sick employee to choose between taking an unpaid day to recuperate and showing up to work and getting paid is just going to get everyone else sick and using their time-off. You’ll get even less done, and everyone who caught whatever Patient-Zero-without-sick-leave was carrying will be pissed off besides.
4) Unnecessarily limited control over work
There are absolutely companies and cases where all hands are needed on deck. But, whenever it isn’t, you don’t need to insist on when and where people do their work. If your fear is that you or others won’t be able to yank someone into a drive-by meeting, then stop interrupting your valuable employees’ trains of thought by springing meetings on them (this is why work doesn’t happen at work). These days, mobile technology allows for effective telemeeting, and calendaring systems do wonders for coordinating schedules easily so that people can plan their days. Unless there’s a good reason for insisting on set hours, don’t. In fact, you can quite easily ask that people simply list their availability on communal calendars so that people know when their team members can and cannot be tagged. (And, a word about unnecessarily controlling how people do their tasks: DON’T!)
5) Lack of job clarity
Can your employees articulate why the company exists and the value that it produces? Do they know how their work contributes to the firm’s value proposition? Do they understand the CEO’s vision for the company? If the answer is negative for any of those questions, exactly how do you expect employees to do their jobs well and fully? Without having a clear idea of their role in the company, they will not have a clear idea of how their work should look so as to dovetail with the efforts of others. They won’t be able to use good judgment in their decision-making because they will have a limited understanding of the end-goals to which their work contributes.
Ultimately, if you want to get good work out of your employees, you need to make sure that the company has an infrastructure that enables them to know what they are doing, know why they are doing it, rewards them for doing it, and gives them as much control as possible over how, when, and where they do it. In many cases, employee engagement will follow right behind those factors, however you define it. But, without the five factors above, employee engagement initiatives will do as much as shocking a cold corpse. Instead, make sure you have good management, aligned incentives, clear vision, and employee job control. Add some good hiring practices, and the sky’s the limit.