Driving and sustaining employee engagement

While there’s a mountain of literature showing that engaged employees deliver better performance, there is little discussion about what it actually is that people engage with at work. Angela Baron explains that it’s not just the organisation, it’s the people, the work itself and, sometimes, something else…

In some organisations, employees are very committed and engaged with the work they are doing but are actively disengaged from their managers, whom they see as barriers to their performance. In others, there is a strong sense of engagement and identification with the immediate business unit, but less with a more distant parent organisation.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) Shaping the future research found that people might become over-engaged with certain aspects of their work, impeding the organisation’s ability to build capability and agility. Care workers, for example, are deeply engaged with their customers and the service they provide and might resist plans to provide services differently. Project workers who identify more closely with a particular project might be difficult to retain once that project ends.

More understanding is needed around what people actually engage with, which would help inform organisations on how best to leverage that engagement.

Task engagement

This insight led the CIPD to ask Kingston Business School to investigate the issue in more depth, drawing on the data from Kingston’s Engagement Consortium, which has been running since 2006. Employees were found to engage with a variety of aspects of their work. However, the engagement varied over time and in its intensity or depth. It found that people primarily engage with the work they do and that this “task engagement” is the strongest driver of performance.

This has implications on how jobs are designed and matched to people. It is important to make sure that jobs are sufficiently interesting and challenging and to recognise that different people will find different aspects of work engaging. For example, in a project management company employees were motivated by the profile and nature of projects; in a service company they were motivated by supporting their client to meet project objectives.

Understanding this “locus” is important to drive better understanding and, hence, management of engagement. Given the strong support for a positive correlation between levels of engagement and performance, finding out where the focus of engagement is and building that into management systems and behaviours is an attractive proposition. To do this, managers need to get beyond the engagement scores to really understand what it is that triggers the emotional reaction and willingness to perform.

Transactional engagement

CIPD research suggests that some people might display the demeanour of engagement, saying and doing the right things to make them appear engaged, while lacking the emotional connection with their work. This is called “transactional engagement”, where people appear to be engaged and perform well as long as they are “rewarded” for their engagement in the form of a job, salary and development. However, such individuals will tend to act in their own best interests rather than those of the organisation or colleagues and might easily be attracted elsewhere by a better “deal”.

Therefore, people managers can’t afford to rest on the laurels of a good engagement score. If they are going to sustain engagement and ensure that it truly drives performance, they must be constantly reviewing what it is that people are engaging with and making sure that they are harnessing and channelling this into value-adding activities.

Employee engagement is one topic that will be explored further during the CIPD’s annual conference and exhibition, 8-10 November, Manchester. Sessions include:

  • How to engage your talent – Deborah Baker, director for people, BSkyB.
  • Engaging individuals: using talent management to drive employee engagement – Robert Potter, HR director, Jardine Lloyd Thomson.
  • Driving and sustaining employee engagement – Tanith Dodge, director of human resources, Marks & Spencer.

Find out more about the CIPD’s annual conference and exhibition.

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