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Engaged or Disengaged? That is the question.

Have you ever been in a conversation in which you had to ask someone to repeat information or a question, not because you did not hear the person, but because you simply were not paying attention? Have you ever finished reading a page in a book only to realize that you have no idea what you just read because your mind wandered off? In both of these instances we are trying to divide our attention between two tasks and it is just not effective – we are not fully engaged in either task. Such cases remind me of the CEO who was asked how many people work in his company. His reply…”About half of them.”

In today’s economic climate, many corporate executives are looking to cut unnecessary expenses and to avoid wasting resources. Our employees are a very valuable, but also costly, resource. Unfortunately, employees vary widely in their level of engagement in our companies.

Q: What is the definition of employee engagement? A: An employee who is engaged is fully involved in, and enthusiastic about, the work that he or she is doing. Tim Rutledge, author of Getting Engaged: The New Workplace Loyalty, describes an engaged employee as one who is committed to, fascinated by, and attracted to the work. When employees are engaged they care about the company’s future and are willing to go beyond the call of duty in order to help their organization exceed. Both practitioners and academics agree that engaged employees are cognitively vigilant and connected to the organization. That all sounds well and good but…

Q: Is employee engagement something we really need to be concerned about? A: The answer is a resounding “Yes!” for two reasons.

  1. Research indicates a surprisingly small percentage of employees are actively engaged in their jobs, and
  2. your employees’ level of engagement affects your bottom line.

Gallup publishes a semi-annual Employee Engagement Index. Recent results for the U.S. indicated that:

  • Only 29% of employees are actively engaged in their jobs and feel a passion for their work and a connection to their company.
  • Over half of employees (54%) are not engaged in their work and have essentially “checked out.” They are going through the motions; putting in their time and keeping busy but not working with passion.
  • The remaining employees, 17%, are actively disengaged. Such employees act on their unhappiness and undermine the work their engaged co-workers are trying to accomplish.

Sadly, global figures are no better. In fact, they are worse. A recent Global Workforce Survey of 85,000 full-time employees of large and mid-sized firms revealed abysmal statistics.

  • Only 14% of the employees surveyed worldwide were highly engaged in their jobs.
  • 62% percent were moderately engaged at best.
  • A disturbing 24% revealed that they were actively disengaged.

These statistics indicate a serious problem. Employees who are engaged think differently than employees who are not engaged. Some specific differences in mindset were identified by the Global Workforce Survey:

  • Most highly engaged employees (84%) believe that they can have a positive impact on the quality of their organization’s products. Only 31% of disengaged employees believe this.
  • While 72% of highly engaged employees believe they can positively affect customer service, only 27% of the disengaged believe they can have a positive impact on customer service.
  • 68% of highly engaged employees believe they can positively impact the costs in their unit or job compared to only 19% of disengaged employees.

Do such beliefs really affect actions? Absolutely! In an article published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, James Harter and his colleagues describe a meta-analysis of 7,939 business units in 36 companies. In this study the relationship between employee satisfaction and engagement and the outcomes of customer satisfaction, productivity, profit, employee turnover, and accidents was examined at the business-unit level. The researchers found generalizable relationships large enough to have considerable practical value between employee satisfaction and engagement and business-unit outcomes. They concluded “that employee satisfaction and engagement are related to meaningful business outcomes at a magnitude that is important to many organizations…” and recommended that companies make changes in management practices that will increase employee satisfaction and engagement in order to increase business-unit outcomes, including profits. In another study by James Thompson, published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, strong relationships were found between employee perceptions of organizational climate (a factor that influences engagement), and customer satisfaction, absenteeism, safety, and profits.

We know that employee engagement affects the mindset of our employees as well as our bottom line. So, how do we go about increasing employee engagement and profits? Gerard Seijts and Dan Crim, from the Organizational Behavior Department at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, have identified ten C’s of employee engagement. They are:

  1. Connect: It is important for leaders to show that they value their employees. Employee engagement directly reflects how employees feel about their relationships with their bosses.
  2. Career: Employees need challenging and meaningful work and opportunities for career advancement. In addition, it is important to instill confidence in employees that the challenges can be met. It is also necessary to ensure that employees have the knowledge and tools to be successful. Failure to provide these is unethical, destroys motivation, and leads to stress. Ultimately, it also leads to lack of engagement.
  3. Clarity: Leaders need to communicate a clear vision for the organization. Employees want to understand the goals that leaders and department heads have for the organization and their division or unit. Employees cannot meet goals that they are not aware of or do not understand.
  4. Convey: While leaders clarify their expectations about employees; good leaders establish processes and procedures to facilitate goal achievement.
  5. Congratulate: Numerous research studies have shown that employees perceive that they receive feedback immediately following a failure to meet expectations, but infrequently receive praise when their performance has been strong. Congratulating employees for strong performance helps to build engagement.
  6. Contribute: Employee engagement can be increased by letting people know their input matters and that they are contributing to the success of the organization in a meaningful way.
  7. Control: Allowing employees to have some control over the pace and flow of their jobs can increase engagement. It is important to be sensitive to the employee’s needs by allowing some flexibility in the employee’s work. For example, accommodating a parent with a special needs child so that he or she can attend a medical appointment or treatment planning meeting. In addition, employees feel more engaged when they are involved in decision-making, especially if they will be directly affected by the decision.
  8. Collaborate: Research has shown that employees who work in teams and have the trust and cooperation of their team members, outperform individuals and teams lacking in good relationships.
  9. Credibility: Employees want to be proud of their jobs and the organizations for whom they work. Leaders should strive to maintain high ethical standards and the company’s reputation.
  10. Confidence: When leaders exemplify high performance and ethical standards, they create confidence in the company and increase engagement.

Creating an engaged workforce gives companies a competitive advantage. Practitioners and academics alike agree that the data present a compelling case why leaders should make employee engagement one of their priorities. Now for the important question:

Q: Engaged or disengaged? Which term describes your employees? Knowledge of the ten C’s of engagement is helpful but it leaves you with a lot of areas to tackle.

Q: Where does one begin? A: Find out where you’re at.

Before attempting to enhance employee engagement, you need to know your starting point. Without knowledge of your baseline, you will not be able to measure improvement. I recommend starting with an employee survey. You can save a lot of time and money by hiring a firm that specializes in business research. Such a firm will already have validated survey instruments for measuring employee satisfaction, including employee perceptions of culture, climate, and other variables that impact engagement. I also recommend hiring a business research firm with the ability to provide you with benchmarking data and one with statisticians trained at the doctoral level. The advantages provided by these services is that you can determine how your company compares to the standards in your industry (this is the only way to really know whether your scores are good or bad) and information about the drivers of your employees’ perceptions. Knowledge of these drivers will enable you to target only those C’s that are influencing the attitudes of your employees, making the process of increasing employee engagement more manageable.

There is another major benefit to conducting employee surveys that is worth noting here: The attitudes of our employees influence the attitudes of our customers. In a study by Sherilyn Kam and Scott Brooks, the relationship between employee opinions and customer opinions was examined. They found that employee opinions were strongly and positively related to customer opinions.

The National Business Research Institute (NBRI) has spent over three decades helping companies determine the answer to the question of how engaged their employees are. Contact NBRI today at 800-756-6168 to learn how we can help you work toward higher employee engagement and higher profits.

Dr. Jan West, Ph.D.

Organizational Psychologist

National Business Research Institute, Inc.

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