Employee Engagement: HR Fad or a Real Concern?

The term “employee engagement” is, once again, hot on every executive’s lips. This time, for good reason. But what does this term really mean, and what can you actually do about engaging employees?

The current economic downturn has increased uncertainty in the workplace and along with that we have seen increasing stress, longer working hours and a feeling of alienation by employees. Senior managers are concerned that their top performers, disgruntled by the effects of the downturn, will pack up and move once it’s over.

Research on motivation reveals that people seek meaning in their work and a sense of self-fulfillment, not just a paycheck. That’s a tough combination during a recession where stress runs high, jobs are few, and employers must often ask more of their employees. Given the prolonged downturn we have experienced, it is hardly surprising that people feel disengaged. As we emerge from this recession it is essential that companies turn to their employees to seek their input.

There are a number of survey methods available and many companies willing to tell you the percentage of employees who are not engaged, how that relates to the industry norm, etc. I am just not sure what actual value that information has to an organization. Instead, soliciting input as part of an organization-wide initiative gives employees needed influence over their situation and a sense that their ideas do matter. But what’s critical is that they are listened to and they see action result from their input. Engaging employees to identify and overcome the organizational issues that they are experiencing is much more effective than merely identifying the percentage of un-engaged people.

If you are fearful that you may lose your top performers once the job market improves, then you need to take an honest look at your relationships with your staff. Research shows that the leading reason people leave their job is the relationship with their immediate supervisor. Now more than ever, executives and managers are under tremendous pressure to deliver results. This is often achieved at the expense of their staff. The “results versus people” dilemma may result in managers and supervisors focusing too much on the tasks and outcomes – and showing little empathy or understanding of the uncertainties and overwork experienced by their staff.

The important questions to consider are: What are their concerns? How do they feel about the current situation?

Okay. I know this all sounds very elementary, but our experience shows that while most managers intellectually understand the need for these “engaging” behaviors, few actually spend the time to do them. So try this: open your office door and take a walk through your department. How do your staff react? Do they avoid eye contact, or do they greet you? Now, start engaging.

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