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What is an engaged employee?

Posted by Hannah Price in Clarity
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There’s a lot of information out there on what employee engagement is, but it’s quite hard to find clear articles on what an engaged employee does or looks like. To me, this is problematic.

If you’re a leader—of a team or a company—and you don’t know what an engaged employee looks like or how they behave, you’re operating in the dark. You won’t be able to deduce if an employee has become disengaged or re-engaged.

Sure, you can measure employee engagement as a metric, but how can you accurately measure a metric unless you know what’s driving it? Unless you know the real-life behaviors that these metrics map to, you won’t have a true insight into engagement. Just because someone shows up to the social events or asks questions in meetings, doesn’t mean they’re necessarily engaged.

As I tried to untangle this and disseminate what an engaged employee is—what they do and how they honestly behave—I distilled it down to five key behaviors. Through research and anecdotal experiences, these are the behaviors that I almost always see in fellow engaged employees (and are often missing in disengaged employees).

What is an engaged employee? 

1. Motivated

Engaged employees are active participants in their work; they want to be doing it and to get it done. Whether that’s because they want to further themselves and/or the company, or simply because they enjoy their day-to-day job. Either way, they have a sense of purpose and motivation, and don’t need to be carefully watched, hand-held, or badgered.

In his research paper on employee engagement and motivation, Chris Burton states:

“The relationship between engagement and motivation is a two way street; improve one and you also improve the other. So the key to understanding how to benefit from improved levels of engagement is firstly to understand what motivates us – why do we really do the things we do..?”

You can find out more on motivation and engagement here.

2. Aware

An engaged employee knows where the company is heading, and they’re aligned with this goal (or at least aren’t against it). They know their role within the company, what it contributes, and how they should fulfill it.

CultureAmp states that:

“The first thing someone needs in order to be in alignment with the company overall, is to know what they need to do to be personally successful. Otherwise, they can’t move forward at all. This basic level of understanding needs to be in place.”


3. Content/Happy

This doesn’t mean resting on their laurels. It means engaged employees are content with where they’re at in the company and their path forward. Happy employees are more engaged and more productive (31% more productive according to Good.co).

4. Committed

Engaged employees are committed to their work and act positively within their role to further the success of their company. When faced with challenges, they’re committed to overcoming them, rather than shirking them off. Even if they’re not naturally curious or extroverted, they’ll demonstrate initiative to overcome obstacles.

If you’re interested in the concept of commitment and engagement, this extensive research paper by Robert J. Vance explores the fact that “dramatic changes in the global economy over the past 25 years have had significant implications for commitment and reciprocity between employers and employees—and thus for employee engagement.”

5. Enthusiastic

Engaged employees are generally enthusiastic about their jobs. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all smiles or jumping for joy every day; an engaged employee is not necessarily an extroverted or exuberant employee. But, they fundamentally enjoy their work and their time at work. They’re not spreading negativity or begrudgingly taking on projects.

Enthusiasm is one of the few descriptors that Gallup uses in its fundamental description of employee engagement:

“Gallup defines engaged employees as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace.” 


It’s not cut and dry

Of course, this list is not exhaustive—there are many engaged employees who demonstrate further traits, such as helpfulness and curiosity. However, not all engaged employees behave this way, hence I didn’t include them on the list.

Also, all of these behaviours do exist on a spectrum. Some disengaged employees I’ve known were completely aware of their role within a company, and they were still enthusiastic about certain aspects of their role, but overall they weren’t motivated because they weren’t happy (primarily due to poor management experiences). They definitely weren’t committed to the company, and eventually left.

Conclusion

Generally, for an employee to be truly engaged and demonstrating these five behaviours, they need to have psychological safety at work. In part this means that they need to “feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.” (Source). It’s about being comfortably vulnerable.

Furthermore, people need to trust their peers and leaders in order to share their ideas or any problems that arise. If you want to know more on how to do this, this article has actionable ideas on how to build trust at work.

Unless you establish these conditions  as an employer, it’s hard for employee engagement to blossom and thrive.

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