What Does Employee Engagement Really Mean?

What Does Employee Engagement Really Mean?

Every company wants their employees to be as engaged as possible, but what does that really mean?

Employee engagement is about more than having employees who give good feedback on the performance of leadership or tell their friends that the salary and benefits are good. Employees stating that their company is a “good place to work” or that “I enjoy my work” is not really employee engagement at the levels you need it. Those things are essential, but they are just a start.

Employee engagement is about the emotional affinity employees feel for a company. An engaged employee is immersed in a company, its culture, its well-being. They don’t just work for the company; they are part of the company and the company is an important part of how they define themselves in the outside world.

High performing talent isn’t necessarily engaged; they might have one foot out the door. The engaged employee feels a bond; they are committed to, believe in and are emotionally involved with the company. The idea of switching jobs, to them, is akin to considering divorcing their spouse.

Is It Time for a Reality Check?

Too many managers and leaders act as if their employees owe them their loyalty, simply because they get a paycheck and have health insurance and a 401K. They rail against critical employee surveys and feedback as if poor results are a reflection on the respondents.

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This is the ultimate expression of corporate arrogance: a company, a leadership team must earn the commitment of their employees, not assume it or demand it. And if leaders are disappointed with the feedback they get, the only people to whom they should complain are themselves and the rest of senior leadership team.

The reality is that in a competitive job market employees often find that there is very little difference between the compensation packages they are offered for their skills by various employers. So the feeling of loyalty needed for real employee engagement won't come from those basics, and any manager who thinks they will needs a reality check.

Missing the Emotional Connection

For many leaders, the employee feedback process is a half-hearted process. Run a survey. Ask a set of standard – probably taken from the Internet – questions regarding what people think or are willing to say about the company, leaders, managers and peers. Create an index of some sort. Find some benchmarks to indicate you do better or at least no worse than some of your peers. Ask HR to hold a few focus groups and make some recommendations. Then go back to running the business of the business until the next survey wave.

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This type of lack lustre process doesn’t bear much fruit. In fact, this type of approach can make things worse, as employees see through insincere, half-hearted efforts.

The basics do matter and you will need to ask 'your people' about everything from salary and benefits to their work space and even the comfort of their chair and the sufficiency of lighting; you do need to know what they think about leadership and corporate strategy, as well as their opinion of their direct manager and peers. Basics like these can't be overlooked as you can learn from the answers, but you need to add in the emotional measures as well

Measuring Employee Emotions

Here’s the challenge: measuring emotions isn’t easy. Our conscious minds don’t really know how we feel. So when we ask a question about feelings, we are pushing people to look into something that is often not very clear, even to ourselves.

That said, you still need to at least try to measure employee feelings, so what do you do?

The traditional approach is simply to ask people to rate or score their feelings. Given that we don’t consciously know our feelings, this approach is far from perfect; but it’s easy, conventional, inexpensive and practical. At the very least it tells us how we think we feel. But employees often are reluctant to give explicitly weak scores.

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Another survey-based technique is to measure emotional attachment. Using implicit association tests you can gauge the strength of emotional attachment based on the speed or accuracy with which employees answer questions in response to some prompt or stimuli. This avoids asking employees directly how they feel about things.

Another approach is to take employee comments–whether in response to a question or unprompted comments they might post or offer–and analyze their words to determine the underlying feelings.

Does the person express frustration or perhaps anger? Are they surprised or maybe delighted? Big data can now be used to automate this function to scale, including the availability of complex algorithms to root out the underlying emotions embedded in what someone has said or written.

Whatever approach you choose, any serious effort at assessing employee/workplace issues must include an emotional dimension, as it is the emotional bond that is the keystone in the foundation of employee engagement, without it you will never truly have that engaged workforce you are looking for, but instead just a bunch of people who are 'okay' with their job but may leave at any moment, without too much of a backward glance.

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