Employee Engagement Defined

How can an organization empower employees to choose ‘engaged’?

How an organization defines employee engagement can impact on the success of the HR strategies put in place to improve it. Increasing Human Resources and organizational development leaders understand that the engagement of workforces brings significant financial, business and health benefits for both the employer and the employee. So, in order to reap these benefits, is it time to take a new look at how organizations define employee engagement and where a business can focus their strategies?

Throughout my 20 plus years as an Occupational Psychologist and a Learning and Development professional, I have been continually striving to find ways to help my clients engage their workforce and to create a happier and more productive working environment. More often than not, this was during management and leadership development sessions or team building events. The latter being the only real opportunity to get closer to the actual people who were either engaged or not. I know many people reading this will readily identify with this.

I was continually reflecting on the impact of my work. While doing this and considering the best definitions of employee engagement to include for clients, it dawned on me that perhaps I could take a slightly different approach. A modified approach with a new definition to achieve an improved outcome.

What is the problem with current employee engagement definitions?

Basically, there is not really a problem with the range of current definitions of employee engagement — perhaps only the fact that there are so many definitions and I am about to add another one. Most of these engagement definitions help us to understand what an engaged workforce looks like. They typically outline the ‘Holy Grail’ of employee engagement — they tell us the ultimate result that we are trying to achieve. So, that is good. We have a goal.

Therein, however, lies my reason for seeking a different definition. One of our key motto’s at etimes2 is ‘etimes2 does more’. I don’t think these definitions do enough or go far enough in helping us decide how to achieve improved engagement. So, we now have a more practical definition focusing on the early stages of employee engagement. It is this definition that we have used to develop the etimes2 employee engagement software.

Employee Engagement: An Outcome and a Choice

The etimes2 definition of employee engagement is clear and simple. Employee engagement is an outcome of the individual employee’s experiences to date in his/her current job which then informs a choice made by the employee to either engage or disengage. Let me explain.

The first part of this definition refers to engagement as an ‘outcome’. Whether an employee is engaged or disengaged is quite a personal matter. It is the result of an individual being in a particular workplace with the history and experiences of his/her interactions with a direct line manager, senior management, colleagues/peers, workplace relationships and everything else that happens in that workplace from the day s/he started that job. It is this history of experiences that will ultimately decide whether a person is engaged or disengaged.

This boils down to ‘learned behaviours’. As employees, we learn whether our opinions and suggestions are listened to and valued. We learn whether our efforts are seen. These lessons that the employee encounters on a daily basis develop his/her efficacy in work. Efficacy refers to how we perceive things will turn out for us — well or badly. So, when a person’s history of experiences within a particular organisation are negative, his/her efficacy is also most likely to be negative and therefore anything tried by management will be viewed with suspicion.

This leads to the second part of the etimes2 definition of employee engagement — it is a choice. This might sound controversial but it isn’t really. It is the other side of the ‘discretionary effort’ coin. We always speak in performance management, leadership and employee engagement conversations about engaged and motivated employees giving ‘discretionary effort’. That is the ‘choice’ of the engaged employee and has been driven to a significant degree by his/her experiences and history with their employer etc.

The disengaged employee, on the other hand, might make a different choice. Perhaps this choice will be to avoid the experiences that cause negative emotions. For example, if Mary feels that her opinion is never listened to or valued, she might choose not to offer her opinion even when it is sought. She has learned this in the past and chooses behaviour to avoid this in future.

Perception is King

This is why etimes2 has developed employee engagement software to enable our clients to build engagement from the ground level upwards. The individual is the key component in driving employee engagement in an organisation.

Engaged employees bring fantastic benefits to an organisation, business and otherwise. This is why so many organisations see engagement as a key strategy and are understandably keen to see a return on their investment in an engagement strategy. etimes2 advises that part of this strategy should focus on the individual. It is difficult to sow the seeds of engagement on barren ground. You need to cultivate the ground first so it will receive the engagement seeds and enable them to grow, so long as it receives sufficient water and attention.

To cultivate the ground, organisations need to pay some attention to individual employees in order to gradually and positively amend learned behaviours. We need to chip away at perceptions to change them from ‘there is little in this for me’ to ‘you know, this might work out OK for me’. Perception won’t be changed quickly, but each little step will bring significant returns.

Technology has enabled etimes2 to provide organisations with the means to communicate, involve and value every individual employee. Our employee engagement platform applies a unique 4 Step Employee Engagement Process, starting with the individual employee as the first step and building engagement up through the team, direct line managers and, finally, at the corporate level.

In summary, through our employee engagement software, we provides senior management with the engagement seeds to sow while we also cultivate the ground to provide a welcoming bed for these seeds to take root. We also provide water at the team and manager levels to nurture and nourish the seeds while they take root and grow into an engaged workforce.

It is our practical definition of employee engagement that has enabled this approach. Employee engagement is an outcome of experiences, leading to learned behaviours and perception upon which choices are constantly made. Top down engagement strategies alone won’t change these perceptions. Only efforts at the individual level will do that.

What is your organisation doing to empower your employees to choose engaged?

Nigel McPolin is the creator and founder of etimes2, an Employee Engagement Building Platform that drives sustained behaviour, engagement and performance throughout the organisation.