The Changing Face of Employee Engagement: 7 Trends

With so many organizations focusing on engaging their employees, why aren’t engagement levels across the world increasing? According to Gallup’s January 2016 article, The Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis, with low engagement in the workforce, there are serious and potentially lasting repercussions for the global economy.

According to Gallup’s latest poll, employee engagement has been pretty stagnant. Only 32% of U.S. workers were engaged in their jobs in 2015, compared to 31.5% the previous year.

Defining Employee Engagement

Wikipedia defines an “engaged employee” as one who is fully absorbed by and enthusiastic about his/her work and so takes positive action to further the organization’s reputation and interests.

An organization with “high” employee engagement might therefore be expected to outperform those with “low” employee engagement, all else being equal. However, there isn’t always a shared meaning of what engagement means, nor is there a universally understood method of developing it.

In The Best of Gallup Management Journal 2001-2007, Jerry Krueger and Emily Killham describe three types of employees:

  • Engaged employees work with passion, and they feel a profound connection to their company. They drive innovation and move the organization forward.
  • Not-Engaged employees are essentially “checked out.” They’re sleepwalking through their workday, putting time—but not energy or passion—into their work.
  • Actively Disengaged employees aren’t just unhappy at work; they’re busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish.

David Mizne of 15five.com defines employee engagement as “proactively and passionately adding value while aligning with the company mission.” In his opinion, this can be hard to quantify. “An engaged employee wears it on their face, demonstrates it in their work and in their workplace communication.”

Mizne feels that the exact definition of employee engagement remains elusive, and becomes even more problematic when one considers Gallup’s seemingly ambiguous subcategories (above) of “not engaged” and “actively disengaged.” He prefers to define employee engagement as “proactively and passionately adding value while aligning with the company mission.”

Companies and leaders worldwide certainly recognize the advantages of engaging employees, and many have instituted surveys to measure engagement. Yet, employee engagement has barely budged in well over a decade.

Faulty Engagement Surveys

Gallup sees a clear divide emerging within the engagement industry. On one end of the spectrum are scientifically and experientially validated approaches that lead to changes in individual and business performance, supported by strategic and tactical development and performance solutions that transform organizational cultures. These approaches require more intention and investment, and companies that use them are more likely to see increases in employee engagement.

At the other end of the spectrum are invalidated, unfocused annual surveys. Much like a traditional employee satisfaction survey, this type of survey usually measures a multitude of workplace dimensions that often have limited alignment with other business objectives and can be difficult to take action upon after receiving results.

Technology also makes it easy to create an “employee survey” and call it an engagement program, which allows a company to fulfill an apparent organizational need and “check a box.” But metrics on their own don’t drive change or increase performance. Many of these survey-only approaches measure employee perceptions and provide metrics instead of improving workplaces and business outcomes.

According to Gallup, when companies focus exclusively on measuring engagement rather than on improving engagement, they often fail to make necessary changes that will engage employees or meet employees’ workplace needs. These shortcomings include:

  • Viewing engagement as a survey or program instead of as an ongoing, disciplined method to achieve higher performance.
  • Focusing more heavily on survey data or reports than on developing managers and employees.
  • Defining engagement as a percentage of employees who are not dissatisfied or are merely content with their employer instead of a state of strong employee involvement, commitment and enthusiasm.
  • Relying on measures that tell leaders and managers what they want to hear—“We’re doing great!”— rather than research-based metrics that set a high bar and uncover organizational or management problems that are hindering engagement and performance.
  • “Feeding the bears,” or measuring workers’ satisfaction or happiness levels and catering to their wants, instead of treating employees as stakeholders of their future and their company’s future.

7 Future Trends in Engagement

In his blog, 7 Fascinating Employee Engagement Trends for 2016, Mizne lists the following engagement trends for the coming year, and writes about how to create a more engaged workforce:

  1. Engagement will go up (but just a little).

    According to Gallup’s latest poll, employee engagement has been pretty stagnant. Only 32% of U.S. workers were engaged in their jobs in 2015, compared to 31.5% the previous year. Given the other trends below, and the fact that engagement has risen from 29% in 2011, we can expect to see the needle move in 2016. But probably not more than a point or two.

  2. Millennials will (still) provide a challenge.

    In 2015, millennials became the largest generation in the US workforce. That number is expected to rise dramatically as more boomers retire and more graduates start their careers.

    Whatever the specific number, Millenials are now the majority. Businesses seeking to engage employees in their work will now have to tailor their approaches to this younger group. Research suggests that they are driven by open communication, a great company culture, involvement with causes, and achieving purpose and fulfillment.

  3. More compassionate leadership.

    People don’t quit their jobs, they quit their bosses. It turns out that the opposite is also true. An inspiring manager creates more engaged teams. According to research by leadership development experts Dr. Brad Shuck and Maryanne Honeycutt-Elliott, “higher levels of engagement come from employees who work for a compassionate leader—one who is authentic, present, has a sense of dignity, holds others accountable, leads with integrity and shows empathy.”

  4. More employee feedback more often.

    In 2014, Mizne conducted an employee engagement study and found that the vast majority of employees who received little or no feedback were actively disengaged. Engagement went up dramatically when employees received feedback about their weaknesses, and even more so when they received feedback about strengths.

  5. Work/Life Balance will become Work/Life Blend.

    The Society for Human Resource Management found that the best companies are embracing flexibility. For many job functions, it is no longer a necessity to require people to come into the office between 9am and 5pm. More companies will continue to provide job flex-time as long as the numbers prove it’s working.

  6. People analytics will grow.

    In his article The Two Sides of Employee Engagement, published in Harvard Business Review last month, Sean Graber argues that it’s important to look at employees’ perceptions and behaviors and their impact on performance. Managers can then decide how to shift things to increase engagement.

    Josh Bersin writes in The Geeks Arrive In HR: People Analytics Is Here, about the shift towards “big data in HR” which began in 2011 and exploded rapidly. He predicts that people analytics will be its own department that will look at productivity, turnover, and the people-issues that drive customer retention and satisfaction.

  7. Technology will focus on the employee.

    One of the biggest trends we are seeing is the arrival of a “new breed of pulse tools, feedback apps, and anonymous social networking tools.” These advanced methods for having regular check-ins with employees to understand where they are being challenged will eventually replace annual performance reviews.

Hope for the Future

In 2016, leadership has more tools at its disposal to predict and improve employee engagement. Perhaps in 2017, Gallup’s survey will report a positive radical shift in how people show up to work.

  • Jiordin Castle of Appirio writes that, in May of 2015, Fortune reported that a record 86% of employees were happy with their jobs — the highest percentage in over a decade.
  • The Society for Human Resource Management reported that employees felt respected, trusted senior management, got along with their bosses, and felt motivated at work.
  • But in a survey by Monster.com that reported similar positive findings, 73% of employees polled also said that they were “thinking about another job”; 43% even said they were more likely to consider a new job than they were a year earlier.

Castle writes, “While there are several factors for the uptick in employee happiness and attrition, the following predictions about the year ahead shed light on 3 things: What employees want, why they leave, and what you can do to get them to stick around.” These predictions include:

  • Employee engagement will become a key HR objective.
  • Gamification will drive corporate goals and planning (at its core, gamification is the use of gaming components to accelerate learning).
  • The despised annual performance review will finally die.
  • Peer-to-peer recognition will increase.
  • A new attrition risk will emerge: low-commitment employees.

Gallup writers Annamarie Mann and Jim Harter sum up the employee engagement crises with this thought:

“Creating a culture of engagement requires more than completing an annual employee survey and then leaving managers on their own, hoping they will learn something from the survey results that will change their daily behavior. It requires a company to take a close look at the critical engagement elements that align with performance and with the organization’s human capital strategy. Managers and leaders should keep employee engagement top of mind — because every interaction with employees can have an impact on engagement and organizational performance.”

Overall, studies have shown that in just about every business, the more attention given to employee engagement and employee well-being, the better the business performance.

“Business is more about emotions than most businesspeople care to admit.”
~ Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D, Nobel Prize Laureate and Behavioral Economist

The Manager-Fixer vs. the Manager-Coach

I’ve been thinking about why more managers don’t use coaching skills to grow their people. While most have had coach training, I’ve observed that coaching conversations are the exception not the rule.

After coach training, once back in the office, managers revert to instructions, advice-giving, and explaining instead of asking questions to encourage people to think things through. Many managers are great problem-fixers instead of coaches.

Despite good intentions, the manager-fixer creates numerous problems:

  1. Quick fixes don’t teach people to think for themselves. When managers explain what needs to be done, some learning may occur, but it isn’t necessarily retained. Employee engagement is minimal.
  2. When work is challenging, employees will look to their managers for a quick and easy fix. They’re denied any sense of ownership or autonomy. When people aren’t fully engaged or empowered, their job satisfaction significantly decreases.
  3. This leads to a third problem: Managers who fix problems encourage dependency, thereby creating additional work for themselves. Being the hero who comes to the rescue may boost your ego, but you’ll become increasingly overwhelmed with work and ultimately create a bottleneck.

The Manager-Coach

Strangely, at most companies, coaching isn’t part of what managers are formally expected to do. Even though research makes it clear that employees and job candidates alike value learning and career development above most other aspects of a job, many managers don’t see it as an important part of their role.

~ Monique Valcour, “You Can’t Be a Great Manager If You’re Not a Good Coach” (Harvard Business Review, July 2014)

Many managers believe they lack the necessary time for coaching conversations. Yet, 70% of employee learning and development happens on the job, not through formal training. If line managers are unsupportive or uninvolved, employee growth, engagement and retention are stunted.

What happens where you work? Are managers there to fix things or to coach? I’d love to hear your experiences. I can be reached here and on LinkedIn.

Igniting Passion and Performance

Look at today’s top-performing companies, and you’ll inevitably find a high degree of employee engagement. From frontline workers to CEOs, people are passionate about their companies’ purpose, values and mission.

Most workers are motivated to give their best and often go beyond what’s required. Some are lucky enough to work for companies that are consistently designated a “best place to work.”

But for countless other organizations, only 20% of employees say they’re excited about work. They show up to earn a paycheck. At most, they aim to achieve personal success and climb the promotion ladder.

In the first workplace, people are passionate. In the latter, they’re looking out for themselves, with management struggling to realize performance goals. We can attribute the difference to organizational factors like hierarchy, processes, incentives and, often, personalities. But the real culprit may be their leaders’ failure to ignite passion.

I see this in many of the businesses where I consult and coach. Leaders don’t see emotional factors as relevant to performance, except for when things go wrong.

Passion Principles

For years, we’ve been learning how workplace performance depends on emotional factors like engagement, culture, values and a sense of purpose. But many leaders and managers ignore the need to foster employee connection to the corporate mission.

While most leaders are highly experienced in financial planning, capital budgeting, and organizational structure and strategies, most receive no formal training in building, leveraging or measuring employee passion.

Engagement surveys are a reasonable way to gauge passion levels, but they cannot capture what it looks like or how to increase it.

We usually see successful startups filled with hordes of passionate people, yet we view them as anomalies—unique because of their youthful culture or trendy products. We seldom imagine older, more traditional companies as hotbeds of passion and energy.

Stagnant leadership thinking plagues executives who fail to identify a purpose beyond making profits.

“If you look through the right lens, every organization has the potential for world-changing impact. The role of a leader is to foster passion around that impact and to keep that passion alive by reinforcing it every day.” ~ Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, in The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015)

When leaders recognize a higher purpose and their companies’ potential to make a difference in the world, they ignite passion in their people and achieve stellar performance. When they ignore purpose, values and passion, they are missing out on one of the most powerful motivators for performance.

What do you think? You can reach me here or on LinkedIn; I’d love to hear what’s happening where you work.

How Great Leaders Ignite Passion and Performance

Look at today’s top-performing companies, and you’ll inevitably find a high degree of employee engagement. From frontline workers to CEOs, people are passionate about their companies’ purpose, values and mission.

Most workers are motivated to give their best and often go beyond what’s required. Some are lucky enough to work for companies that are consistently designated a “best place to work.”

But for countless other organizations, only 20% of employees say they’re excited about work. They show up to earn a paycheck. At most, they aim to achieve personal success and climb the promotion ladder.

In the first workplace, people are passionate. In the latter, they’re looking out for themselves, with management struggling to realize performance goals. We can attribute the difference to organizational factors like hierarchy, processes, incentives and, often, personalities. But the real culprit may be their leaders’ failure to ignite passion.

Passion Principles

For years, we’ve been learning how workplace performance depends on emotional factors like engagement, culture, values and a sense of purpose. But many leaders and managers ignore the need to foster employee connection to the corporate mission.

While most leaders are highly experienced in financial planning, capital budgeting, and organizational structure and strategies, most receive no formal training in building, leveraging or measuring employee passion.

Engagement surveys are a reasonable way to gauge passion levels, but they cannot capture what it looks like or how to increase it.

We usually see successful startups filled with hordes of passionate people, yet we view them as anomalies—unique because of their youthful culture or trendy products. We seldom imagine older, more traditional companies as hotbeds of passion and energy.

Stagnant leadership thinking plagues executives who fail to identify a purpose beyond making profits.

“If you look through the right lens, every organization has the potential for world-changing impact. The role of a leader is to foster passion around that impact and to keep that passion alive by reinforcing it every day.” ~ Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, in The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015)

When leaders recognize a higher purpose and their companies’ potential to make a difference in the world, they ignite passion in their people and achieve stellar performance.

Passion Starts with Purpose

If you haven’t clearly articulated the “why” of your business, people will struggle to be engaged in the “what” their job requires.

In his brilliant 2009 TED Talk and book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Simon Sinek emphasizes there has to be a reason—a purpose—for today’s workers to commit and give their best efforts to an organization:

“If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money. If you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.”

Employees who don’t know how their job contributes to the organization’s purpose—and who cannot clearly articulate this purpose—are unable to give their wholehearted participation.

Igniting passion starts with defining your personal and company purpose: your beliefs, values, passions, principles and connection to the company’s mission.

Purpose isn’t what a group does, but why it performs. Defining your purpose is just the first step. Leaders must activate people’s emotions and desires.

Purpose and Passion

If having a purpose encourages people to do the right things, then passion motivates them to give extraordinary performance.

“To put it bluntly, the most important task for any manager today is to create a work environment that inspires exceptional contribution and that merits an outpouring of passion, imagination and initiative.” ~ Gary Hamel, What Matters Now: How to Win in a World of Relentless Change, Ferocious Competition, and Unstoppable innovation (Jossey-Bass, 2012)

Smart leaders infuse passion into their workplaces by hiring for it right from the start.

Hire for Passion

Know anyone who’s so passionate about his work that he has a company logo tattooed somewhere on his body?

Admittedly, certain companies involved in software, social media and video gaming are more likely to have young, cult-like followers. Red Hat, the open-source Linux technology company, and Razer, the gaming hardware developer, are two examples.

When people are truly passionate about their interests and values, they eagerly express it in many ways. Companies harness this passion by encouraging a “raving fan-like” attitude among employees and customers. This can happen only when leaders provide a platform for passion.

Zappos, the large online shoe store known for its customer service, hires talent whose personal values align with the company’s core values. The best candidates have a genuine interest in helping others.

It starts at the hiring process. How do you find people who believe in the same values you and your company represent? You probably won’t unearth them using boring, conventional interview questions. You need to do more than determine someone’s skills, education and experience. You must ascertain whether candidates are a cultural fit.

It’s hard to tell if a candidate is excited because she desperately wants a job vs. a job at your company. The best people to gauge true passion, interest and fit already work for you, so let them participate in candidate interviews. Future peers are likely to learn valuable information about potential new hires.

When it comes to interview questions, evaluate how candidates interact with prospective team members. How important is collaboration to them? Assess for curiosity in others, big-picture vs. little-picture vision, and outside interests and values.

Recognize and Reinforce Passion

Passion is a strong like for something—an enthusiasm usually rooted in personal values, identity and cultural preferences. The term is often used in context with strong beliefs:  religious fervor, political views or desire for another’s love. We may also be passionate about our leisure activities.

In the context of work, passion refers to strong emotions that drive energy and engagement. To foster passion, leaders must set the stage by openly sharing their own desires and emotional interests. When leaders are unafraid to show their own excitement, others will follow suit. Great leaders recognize and reward people whose passion drives them beyond basic job requirements.

When employees openly express passion for their work, you must recognize and honor it; otherwise, you risk losing it. In a truly engaged workplace, everyone relies on peers for praise and acknowledgment. A leader must encourage this.

When an employee goes above and beyond expectations, make sure others find out about it. A company intranet or bulletin board is a great way to spread and share kudos.

Company Culture, Events and Team Projects

You can reinforce your company’s culture and brand in many ways, but the most important may be trumpeting grass-roots ideas. When people offer their ideas, make sure they’re heard and responded to within a reasonable time frame. Emails should never be ignored or delayed. If you want people to be creative and innovative, you must listen to their contributions and give them freedom to take action.

Reinforce company values and purpose, and let staff organize themselves to explore projects. Provide a platform to celebrate events and achievements. Let staff plan celebrations to acknowledge hard work, success and initiative.

If your company sponsors charities or donates to a cause, let employees choose which ones to support and how they wish to participate. Even when there’s executive involvement in setting budgets, let associates run the program.

Each time you listen to individuals and teams is an opportunity to reinforce values, purpose and passion, thereby ensuring that employees connect emotionally to goals and plans.

Connecting personal interests to company purpose can be tricky.  It won’t happen without frequent discussions among staff and leaders. Some experts say a message must be heard five times before people actually hear it and incorporate it into memory.

Linking Passion to Performance

When leaders encourage a culture in which employees take psychological ownership, even average employees can perform at high levels. Purpose and passion create meaning and excitement at work. You achieve workplace engagement when employees apply this energy to specific tasks that drive your company’s success.

Be more communicative about strategy, and let every employee know what’s going on with the business, including financials. Managers must ensure their direct reports understand how individual performance contributes to overall long-term success.

Most executives believe they communicate well, but they tend to overestimate their abilities. The more frequently you speak to values and higher purposes, the more others will follow your lead.

Passion is contagious—an energy force that encourages goodwill and collaboration. So, too, is negativity. Ignite passion and diminish negativity by frequently talking about purpose and values.

Passion abounds when people believe their daily tasks have meaning. You energize your workplace when people see their accomplishments have a direct impact on team members, customers, the community and the business.

Leadership Tips for Sparking Passion

In The Open Organization, Red Hat’s Whitehurst provides five key leadership tips:

  1. Passion is contagious. When leaders display emotion, others will follow.
  2. Most companies have a stated purpose or mission. Integrate it into your dialogue with others on a daily basis.
  3. Add passionate words to your work vocabulary: “love,” “hate,” “excited” and “upset.” Others will adopt this behavior.
  4. Ask questions that tease out passion when hiring (i.e., “What inspires you?”).
  5. Create vehicles for people to show their unvarnished selves. Company outings or team-building events should allow for some silliness.

How do leaders in your organization ignite passion? How can you participate to create an inspirational workplace?