Contours of Employee Engagement – Clarifying Meanings and Interfaces

Why do we need a deeper understanding of Engagement?
That which can be understood, measured and assessed, can be managed. This is especially true of the elusive phenomenon called ‘Employee Engagement.”In my previous blogpost, I wrote about how an engaged employee is one whose energies and talents are aligned to the larger goals and mission of the company. Through this second blogpost in the series, we will continue our journey of understanding employee engagement by mapping its contours, clarifying meanings of associated terms, and understanding the interface dynamics at various points in the organization.

I am doing this with the purpose of eventually building a deeper understanding and direction for HR professionals in the inculcation of employee engagement in their organizations.

Demographic and Psychographic Contours
Commitment, loyalty, motivation, inspiration are some of the words that populate the universe of engagement. Trends show that the term ‘commitment’ replaced ‘loyalty’ a few years ago, and is closely followed by motivation and inspiration. Today, the HR function looks at employee engagement activities as a separate area of focus with its own measures and indices.

Demographically speaking, a study conducted by Open Spaces Consulting revealed that employee engagement is higher in older people, in women, in manufacturing industry, and in employees with more experience (2012). The mapping of emotional intelligence of those with a higher level of engagement, showed that people who were ambitious and had clear and high personal goals, who were self-starters and took initiative, who had a sense of mission and intention in their activities, and were goal oriented, and who had a higher quality of life, were higher in engagement. So, we can conclude that employee engagement is not an organization-wide, universally applicable phenomenon.

The mistake many companies make in the measuring and assessing employee engagement is giving average scores of the entire organization or a unit of the organization without accounting for its demographics. Understanding the demographic spread of your employees, their engagement levels and the quality they bring to work, helps in designing customized OD interventions that can actually have positive results at the process, structure and culture levels.

The Design of OD Interventions for Engagement
The story does not end with demographics. We need to align these OD efforts with the organizational culture, climate and institution building efforts. Leadership at all levels, will also impact the uptake of the interventions and the absorption of HR initiatives in the context of the company. The nature of jobs, their design, rewards and recognition, intrinsic and extrinsic motivational patterns, employee satisfaction and stability of membership in the company are other organizational factors that help shape the contours of employee engagement.

However,employee engagement OD interventions do not achieve absolute results. The journey is long and successes are sometimes small. The limiting factors outside the control of HR and management are – the peer climate that influences and enhances negativity and cynicism in organizations, job-market conditions for the talent, which give rise to tempting opportunities that distract the focus and membership of the employee, and the ethical orientation of the profession and the individual.

Hence, employee engagement initiatives need to answer the following questions:

  • Do people understand corporate goals, missions and strategic directions?
  • Do people have clarity of their roles in contributing to these goals?
  • Are the performance parameters of the organization articulated in clear directions for setting of mutual expectations?
  • Are jobs designed in a way that they can deliver the organizational purpose?
  • Does the job-person fit ensure that the right person with the right competencies is in the job?
  • Are employees empowered with tools, processes, information and authority to take decisions congruent with their role and performance expectations?
  • Is the assessment of employee performance in specific and measurable terms aligned to organizational goals?
  • Does the organization provide autonomy and personal space for innovation?
  • What is the nature of boss-subordinate relationships in the organization and how does the organization troubleshoot in crises?
  • Is the performance feedback to employees clear and objective?
  • Does the organization reward and recognize objective and measured performance?
  • What is the career growth and advancement potential for employees in the organization?
  • What opportunities does the organization provide for professional learning and development?
  • Does the initiative engender pride and belongingness to the organization?
  • Is the voice of the employee heard and responded to?

Pitfalls HR Professionals Should Avoid

• Over-focus on quantitative measures rather than objective assessment
There is a plethora of consultants available with off-the-shelf products to measure employee engagement. The usual approach is a survey that collects employee responses digitally, collates the results for each unit and department of the company, and feeds the statistics to the management. The management, in turn, is expected to discuss these statistics with the employees and churn out action plans that take care of all the grievances. The next year the survey is conducted again and, predictably shows an upward trend in the engagement of employees. However, the ground reality does not reflect the change and experiences of employees in their day-to-day interaction with the organization remains dry and unexciting. The problem - the organization measured numbers and statistics instead of a qualitative and quantitative objective assessment with expert intervention of HR professionals from outside.

• Tools to measure employee engagement do not focus on performance and involvement in organizational goals, but on employee satisfaction instead.
The surveys offered by most large consulting houses consist of research based questionnaire instruments. The research, however, is undertaken in a Western context, and is usually an outgrowth of employee satisfaction surveys. The fact remains that employee satisfaction and employee engagement are two different phenomena, which may or may not be correlated.

• Action plans focus on transactional corrections
In a majority of cases, I have observed that action plans that emerge from these engagement surveys, result in transactional changes. Things like employee participation in decision-making on canteen menus (a perennial pain point), are arrived at in discussions of engagement survey results. A process owner is appointed and that is the end of the grievance, and HR is happy to report better figures in the next year’s survey.

• Confusion of community building with welfare activities
Too often, the entire focus of employee engagement is on welfare activities. These result in feelings of well-being and extrinsic satisfaction. Since the experience of dissatisfaction is low, the reported levels of engagement are high, but as pointed out, the correlation between satisfaction and engagement is not yet proven. Consequently, the meaning and understanding of employee engagement is muddled, thereby losing its living definition as “the involvement of the employee in organizational goals.”

• Treating all employees on par as a statistic
As pointed out elsewhere, the unit of change is the individual. Each individual has his or her own uniqueness and patterns of engagement with the organization. In the chase for improved numbersfrom engagement surveys, the organization tends to lose out on the uniqueness of qualitative tonalities of employee engagement. The battle of ‘averages’ meets with mixed results as an outcome.

• Main factor of ‘leadership’ is rarely addressed
While most managers acknowledge that organization culture flows from leadership, rarely is any element of change considered at that level. HR efforts tend to be constrained to managing and minimizing the unintended consequences of the organizational leadership style.

In my next post on “Best Practices in Employee Engagement,” I will share some of the initiatives I come across in my work with different organizations.


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