The Employee Engagement Discussion

For the last ten years, businesses have focused on employee engagement and its cost to businesses. Pretty much any report or study on engagement points out that about 70% of employees in the U.S. are not engaged at work and it is costing businesses approximately $500 billion a year.

Unfortunately, this employee-focused issue has not changed since before the 1950s when the emphasis was on employee satisfaction.  In the 1980s, the emphasis turned to organizational commitment.  The business issue; however, has not changed since researchers started studying and quantifying the situation more than 70 years ago.

There are a few major companies out there that have found some success in this arena and have become the poster childs for how they treat their employees.  Like in everything else, many companies think if they simply do the same visible things that they will be successful and their survey results will go up.

Speaking of survey results; when it comes to this topic, this is another important aspect. The purpose of surveying employees on their engagement (or whatever employee-focused thing) is to quantify how employees feel about the organization. Many companies do not even measure this, which tells someone a lot about how much they care about the issue. A good deal others use the survey results to target specific things in the organization to raise the score. This is a failed approach to employee improvement.  Surveys are for the purpose of providing a gauge of how engaged your employees are, not specifically a roadmap to improvement.

When you look at this issue from the business’ point of view, they do not really care if the employee is satisfied or engaged at work. They just know that if the employee is not, they are not operating as well as they should. What organizations want is employees committed to the organization–organizational commitment.

Employees, on the other hand, do not care about being committed. What they want is to be satisfied with their job–employee satisfaction.

The concept of “being engaged” is a deeper subject that most companies and employees simply do not understand. Employee satisfaction represents how employees feel about the things they can measure in their job. Organizational commitment is a result of satisfied and engaged employees and is measured from the business’ point of view.  But engagement is something entirely different.

Each of these three terms: satisfaction, commitment, and engagement, work together in business. Each one is important and should be the focus of employee and organizational wellbeing.

From a satisfaction point of view, employees are focused on the tangible things that they can measure at work.  Things such as the security of their position, comusurate pay and benefits with their role in comparison to others, recognition and rewards, opportunity for advancement, the company dress code, etc.

From an organizational commitment perspective, there are three factors that exist: employee, leadership, and organization. Employees must be present and they must be dedicated to work. If the company does not have any employees, then who will be committed to the organization? If the employees are lazy and not interested in working hard–just want to get paid–then they will not be committed. If there is no effective leadership to provide a vision and goals, or reward and recognize employees, then commitment cannot occur. The organization might have people in leadership positions, but they might not be leaders. Lastly, the organization must not just exist, but it needs to be an organization worth being committed to. If your organization does not have a strong purpose, vision, and culture, employees find difficulty being committed to it.

Engagement is the term that confuses managers the most. The reason is, because it is really based on how employees feel about their job.  This is difficult for companies to manage to, so most resort to single items scored low on a survey. Employee satisfaction was easy to manage to because, like the employee, the company could see, touch, and measure it. What confuses engagement even further is that many of the surveys out there include questions related to commitment and satisfaction as part of the engagement equation.

Employees are engaged by three things at work. These three things are communication, development, and quality. These things are not obvious to organizations and usually are some of the major problem areas many companies have. Open and honest communication builds relationships and trust with leadership and between employees. Most organizations stuggle with communication (internal and external).  Development is more than having classes available or a training budget that no one uses. Development is about actively challenging employees to grow and helping them with the challenge. It is about assisting them to become something better and stronger then they were when they started with the company. Quality is a recognition of doing good work, that employees around you are doing good work, and that the management focuses on quality work.  If the company does not care, cuts corners, and puts out a shoddy product just to make more money, the employees will be the first to know it.

So, the discussion needs to turn from one of engagement to one of organizational and employee wellbeing. All things, satisfaction, commitment, and engagement should be evaluated to establish a baseline and then to measure effective improvement. For each category, the right things need to occur versus focusing only on statements and scores on a survey. Only then will wellbeing occur.

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About johnrknotts
John Knotts is a results-oriented business professional leader, manager, and supervisor with experience from the military, small business, several nonprofits, and is currently a management consultant. Working out of the San Antonio, Texas, he retired from the Air Force in July 2008 and worked with Booz Allen Hamilton from the end of October 2008 to December 2011. Now he is a Strategic Business Adviser with USAA. John leads large and small strategic transformations and has extensive experience in the areas of change management, strategic planning, process improvement, strategic communication and marketing, strategic human capital and resource management, education and training, facilitation, organizational design and development, modeling and simulation, financial and budget analysis, activity based costing and management, quality management, competitive sourcing and privatization, leadership development, and business development.

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