Four key enablers to employee engagement

Engagement is one of those terms that is often referred to as a “fluffy” HR issue. But according to David MacLeod, chair of the Government-sponsored Employee Engagement Task Force and non-executive director of the Ministry of Justice, it is not just “the wacky side of management” anymore, it is a central component in a business’s success.

Talking at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s Employee Engagement Conference, MacLeod and Nita Clarke, director of the Involvement and Participation Association and vice-chair of the task force, explained that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to engaging your employees.

Instead, employers need to create the right environment to enable engagement to flourish in the workforce and find the techniques that speak directly to their employees. To help get the basics in place, MacLeod and Clarke set out four steps to enable employee engagement:

1. Create a strategic narrative

Where are you? Where have you been? Where are you going? Chances are, at least from a business perspective, your organisation has this planned out in some form. But do your employees feel part of that narrative?

MacLeod argues that if your organisation’s “story” is communicated clearly to employees then it lets them see how the work they do fits in with the business’s goals. But this isn’t something you can simply put up on your intranet in order to encourage employees to invest in it.

“The only way you get that commitment is to repeat the story over and over again to employees and give your people a sense of ownership in it,” he comments.

For example, MacLeod explains, in one engineering firm, employees were asked to add diagrams and explanations of new solutions and innovations to a timeline pasted on the wall, which depicted the organisation’s goals. When they did so, it created a buzz and their colleagues gathered round to look at what they were doing. This not only encouraged the team to share their knowledge, but allowed them to see how their achievements fitted into the company’s “big picture”.

2. Engage managers

It may seem simple but if you try to engage your workforce without first engaging your managers you may get limited results. Many employees’ motivation and engagement will depend on how they feel towards their bosses. And if those managers are not engaged themselves, where’s the motivation to engage their people?

According to MacLeod, engaged managers:

  • focus their people and enable them to get the job done;
  • treat their team members as individuals; and
  • coach and stretch people.

MacLeod argues that if managers build bigger relationships with people as individuals, those workers will make bigger contributions.

So, if you want to raise engagement levels across your workforce, be sure to take a look at your managers first.

3. Give employees a voice

“Communications are very important but what matters is: do you listen?” Clarke says. Listening is a key part in giving employees a voice but it doesn’t stop at the 360-degree survey. Clarke adds: “If you’re lucky, the survey will tell you how people are feeling at a certain point in time but it doesn’t tell you the important thing: why are they feeling like that?”

And this is why the employee voice is crucial. Staff have insights into why and where things are going wrong. As Clarke points out, nearly every public inquiry brings up one clear finding: somebody knew before the event that something was going to go wrong. The problem was that they didn’t speak up or they weren’t listened to. If employees feel that their managers and their organisation listen to them they will be much more likely to point out problems before they become a disaster.

Another point to remember is that employees who feel able to speak up without retribution will share the good as well as the bad. They will share their ideas and, if they feel that these are listened to, this will increase their engagement in their work.

4. Make sure there is organisational integrity

This comes down to the old “do as I say, not as I do” mentality. If an organisation’s values are not reflected in day-to-day behaviours of managers or colleagues then it will be interpreted as a corporate spin exercise and will not be trusted by employees.

MacLeod comments: “All organisations have some values on the wall. What we found was that when those values were different from what colleagues and bosses do, that brings distrust. When they align, then it creates trust.”

For example, he adds, one value will often be something to do with innovation. The key indicator as to whether or not this value is reflected in the behaviour of the workforce is what happens when someone tries something new and it fails. For innovation to take place, failure has to be accepted as part of the process.

So, while an engagement programme that works wonders in one organisation may have little or no effect in one with different people and cultures, following these four steps will provide a strong foundation for any efforts you do make to increase engagement.

For more information on how organisations are tackling engagement, view XpertHR data on the barriers and issues affecting employers in employee engagement.

The independent Employee Engagement Task Force was launched by the Government in March 2011. The employer-led task force aims to enhance levels of employee engagement across the UK workforce by sharing the information it gathers on good practice, creating debate on how to engage employees and offering support on a new website which is due to be launched later this year. Further information is available here.