Employee engagement isn’t just HR’s responsibility


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As UK employee engagement and productivity levels remain stubbornly low, Stuart Hearn explains why improving engagement levels is a job for the whole business, not just HR.

HR leaders are all too familiar with the yearly engagement survey. But engagement surveys which have accurate and useful results are more of a novelty.

Increasingly, HR understands that such surveys only reflect how an employee is feeling in that current moment. They aren’t an accurate representation of what engagement has been like throughout the whole year.

Senior managers know they want high employee engagement, but when the surveys have negative responses, businesses react with engagement initiatives – which may or may not do the trick. When they don’t, it’s usually HR who are held responsible.

HR should act as facilitators by supporting staff and providing them with the appropriate tools to reflect on, measure and boost their own engagement”

HR, traditionally, have been the gatekeepers of this rather uninspiring process. In reality, employee engagement shouldn’t solely be the responsibility of HR – it should be everyone’s.

For employee engagement to be high, you need the right conditions. Senior leaders are responsible for setting out the culture, which means they need to create a culture in which engagement is a priority. Managers work directly with employees and should ensure their employees are immersed in their work. Employees need to be open and honest about how engaged they are with their managers. And HR? HR should act as facilitators by supporting staff and providing them with the appropriate tools to reflect on, measure and boost their own engagement.

Senior leaders must drive the cultural shift

Studies have shown that a good company culture can increase revenue. For example, one study which looked at 200 companies revealed that those with performance-enhancing cultures had, on average, a 682% revenue growth compared to 166% in companies that didn’t.

Senior leaders set the tone for the culture of an organisation, and to make sure it’s one in which engagement can thrive, there are a few things they must do:

Ongoing engagement

Employee engagement isn’t a one-time thing. We can’t expect a snapshot of someone’s engagement to last for the entire year. If engagement is measured annually, it risks being skewed by outlier data. People may be genuinely engaged and committed to their work but suffering from a stinking cold on survey day. They might have had a horrible commute, or a family bereavement, or too many glasses of wine the night before. Measuring engagement frequently and regularly will mitigate this, as long as it’s done in a low-touch way that doesn’t pull people out of the flow of work.

Practise what you preach

Most people in an organisation look up to senior leadership for guidance. Leaders need to set an example. They need to demonstrate that engagement is important to them by acting on the insights they get. Perhaps most importantly, they need to base those actions in work, and work outcomes. If the result of an engagement initiative is a coffee machine or a yoga class, that may make people happier in the short term, but it won’t move the needle in a lasting way.

Direct managers must understand and motivate their employees

According to Gallup, managers account for over 70% of the variance in employee engagement. Employees with highly engaged managers are 59% more likely to be engaged than employees supervised by actively disengaged managers. Managers play an integral role in ensuring employee engagement because they have a closer relationship with employees than senior leaders and HR. They understand their employees’ day-to-day work and should have some responsibility in ensuring that they feel motivated. It’s important for managers to create an environment in which employees can openly discuss their work and how they are feeling.

One way in which managers could do this is by taking a coaching approach to understand each employee’s strengths and help them use those in their role. According to Gallup, employees who feel their manager is invested in them as people are more likely to be engaged. Each person is different, with different challenges. Recognising your employees’ contributions and seeking out their opinions and ideas can help them feel empowered and engaged.

Performance management is also linked to engagement. Employees with managers who excel at performance management activities are more engaged than employees whose managers struggle with these tasks. If managers talk to their employees, and provide clarity on goals and objectives, they’re already creating the environment for work engagement.

Employees must be responsible for their own engagement

Employees play a critical role in their own engagement. It’s vital that they reflect on their own state of mind – and how it applies to their work – and use that to prompt discussion with their manager. This is work engagement at its purest: the positive loop whereby the employee and manager find ways to navigate obstacles and take advantage of opportunities. It’s performance management feeding engagement.

A study by Amabile and Kramer underlines this: it found that people feel motivated by what they describe as a “progress-loop.” When we make progress towards something that matters to us, we feel motivated to continue – causing further progress.

Finally, creating a space for “flow” – a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikzsentmihalyi – is a state in which a person is so completely immersed in an activity that they lose a sense of time and forget about demands that aren’t related to the current task. These can include tasks that are meaningful to you and require your full concentration – allowing you to feel in control and invigorated.

HR should hold everyone accountable

HR plays an essential role in ensuring that engagement initiatives run smoothly. A key part should be to support managers and employees with the right tools and learning opportunities. HR should hold managers accountable for ensuring that engagement initiatives are followed through. But also, they need to ensure that senior leaders and managers are engaged at work, otherwise this could have a knock down effect on employees. According to research by Towards Maturity, three in five L&D leaders said one of the biggest barriers to success for engagement initiatives was management’s engagement.

However, there are tools that can help HR capture more accurate information about the state of play in an organisation. It’s possible to identify which managers or employees aren’t having regular conversations or may be struggling to create effective goals. You can also view engagement data at a team or macro-level, which can guide the development of EAPs or wellness initiatives. Most importantly, it puts engagement in the context of performance, ensuring that employee engagement is grounded in work outcomes. The role of the manager and their relationship with the employee is crucial here.  HR doesn’t need to be the engagement police: they should be enablers of business value, with engagement as one of the metrics they have to play with.

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