New data on employee engagement is in, and it's downright discouraging. As this post by HBR's Gretchen Gavett noted, Gallup's research shows that engagement among US workers is holding steady at a scant 30%. This means seven out of ten people are either "checked out", or actively hostile toward their employers. Seven out of ten.
Study after study shows that employee engagement, an index of bringing one's best and full self to work, is not just an organizational nicety. It is a business imperative, linked to a number of performance outcomes, including profitability, customer satisfaction and turnover. A 2012 report on human capital from McKinsey added to the evidence, noting that organizations with top scores in employee motivation are about 60% more likely to be in the top quartile for overall business health. Companies I work with in my consulting practice who have done their own internal research have found similar linkages.
Of course, engagement is an emotional and deeply personal experience; it's not simple or straightforward to address. But leaders must do so, for the sake of not only their employees but also their companies. Here are pointers to help you to make real inroads in this area:
Understand the basics of positive psychology and engagement research. At the end of her post, Gavett refers to an HBR classic on employee motivation, in which the famed management psychologist Frederick Herzberg argued that workers respond positively to more responsibility and authority in their daily tasks. This finding is resonant with self-determination theory, a well-established research program in psychology that has identified the universal human need for autonomy. In other words, people generally do well when they are empowered to make choices and decisions for themselves. Plenty more research has been done on work engagement, showing that factors such as social support and feedback can drive positive experience. Managers and HR professionals need to understand these and other robust psychological theories to more effectively shape their engagement efforts. A wealth of information is out there, ready to be put to good use.
Find out what engages your employees, not someone else's. While broad research is a valuable resource, it can only take an organization so far. No theory or model is useful in the abstract. What matters is your business and your people. Ironically, most organizations use engagement results punitively; they focus on what is going wrong, and on why people aren't as engaged as they could be. A better approach is to figure out what's already working in your business, and find ways to replicate it. Go to the most engaged individuals, teams and business units, and help others model what they do. I've used this approach to help businesses identify a unique "engagement signature" suited to their culture and context.
Encourage grassroots engagement. Engagement cannot be mandated, but it can be ignited. Once you understand what matters to your employees, you can support its expression and replication far and wide. Empower your people, particularly the most engaged employees, to share stories, exchange ideas and disseminate best practices across the business. A well-designed piece of media, such as a video "starring" members of a thriving business unit, can gain traction and become a source of encouragement for others. With the rise of social media and digital workplace technologies, it's easier than ever to connect employees and make engagement contagious.
Recognize engagement as a moving target, and check back often. While certain elements of employee engagement will surely hold over time, it's not something that can be assessed and addressed just once. Research shows that engagement fluctuates daily, and with changing circumstances. What engages people during a surge in business may be very different from what helps them bring their best selves to work in a recession. To keep your organization engaged, you must remain engaged, curious, and connected yourself.
The next time Gallup or McKinsey do their polls, I'd like to see those engagement scores rise. What would it take to engage half, three quarters or 100% of the workforce? Imagine what it would mean to business success, employee happiness and productivity.
What are you doing about employee engagement, and what can you share with others? Let's begin the conversation today.
Susan David is a founder and co-director of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching and a member of the Harvard faculty. She co-edited the Oxford Handbook of Happiness (Oxford University Press, 2013) and directs Evidence Based Psychology, a leadership development organization and management consultancy.