What is “Employee Engagement” and What Difference Does it Make to the Business?

In the past two years in particular, Employee Engagement has emerged as a leading subject in most organizations.  And, although it may be one of the most popular topics of discussion and articles, we all seem to have different interpretations of what Engagement is and what difference it makes for a business. We’ve all seen many well-intentioned and well-written articles refer to Engagement but focus on happiness, satisfaction, or perks.  Our interpretation of Engagement is bigger than these things.  While these are all important, they alone are not enough to build and sustain employee performance and commitment.

So what is our definition?  It’s this: Employees are engaged when they feel enthusiastic, excited, or passionate about going to work each day.  When they don’t want to miss a day.  When they derive personal meaning from doing their work, when they find meaning exists for other people, customers, or the business simply because of the way they, as individuals, do their jobs.  When they get to use preferred skills regularly in doing the work.  When they know they make their unique difference by doing their jobs.  Employee Engagement seems to us to refer to what Maslow called Self-Actualization, or what also has been known as Intrinsic satisfaction or the ability to find joy in doing the work itself. These feelings generate commitment.  Willingness to go the extra mile.

These feelings feed more similar feelings and continue to self-reinforce as long as management enables those work conditions to continue for people. And, people’s needs change.  As we gain more experience and grow, our preferred skills evolve, and what has meaning to us also changes over time.  That means that roles need to evolve as individuals evolve.

It is not easy for management to provide the opportunity for their people to get engaged.  It can be especially challenging in organizations where roles are specialized and include repetitive work using standardized procedures.  Many employees have not yet experienced Engagement in their work careers, and often have learned to look for this kind of meaning in life outside of work.

But Engagement can be built and sustained in even the most challenging of circumstances.    A single aspect of leadership can create a context for people to find meaning in their work.  And, this aspect of leadership also happens to be the first of 5 critical components of strategic business performance:  Building a universal understanding of the business strategy—for every single employee. Building engagement requires leaders at all levels to relate to their people daily, connecting with them on why customers buy from the company, what makes the company different from its competitors, and who the key competitors are.

Leaders need to enable employees to understand, individually, their impact.  And this needs to be done through communication that is genuine, clear, informative and interesting to employees.  People need to be able to see how they can make a difference by the way they do their jobs.   They need regular individual and group feedback.  Performance data needs to be readily accessible to them.  They need to be recognized individually and as a group for contributing the company’s unique value to the customer. Engagement results from many different types of management practices and actions.

At a Saks Off Fifth Avenue outlet store, a newly promoted supervisor of sales associates named Michael is mastering the skill of engagement.  He personally informs his team of the day’s goals in revenue and other key performance areas.  He walks around observing, talking with employees and customers, and in the process Michael acknowledges people for the good things he sees them doing.  He provides updates on the continually changing status of daily goals, thanks everyone in person, and posts notices thanking each person for the difference he/she made during the shift. Michael is building engagement and commitment is a result.

Overall, sales associates have structured, repetitive jobs.  They complete customer transactions, enable customers to access fitting rooms, clean out fitting rooms, sort clothing and return it to the sales floor, straighten merchandise displays on racks and counters, open customer credit cards, assist customers in finding what they want, and handle customer requests and complaints.  All employees have radio communications to immediately reach one another and management staff and these are well used.  Customers are referred to and treated as “guests” of the store.  Saks and Michael are bringing out the best in their people, and bringing about commitment in people who have jobs that often have high-turnover in the retail industry.

The results of employee engagement include high performance, commitment, high attendance, doing what it takes, taking initiative –with a focus and a purpose:  delivery of value to the customer, value that aligns with the business strategy.  An engaged organization is a great place to work, and creates the kind of customer experience that the business strategy intends and requires for success.  Engagement creates energy among individuals that combines to build a high-charged work environment.  People smile and enjoy their work. They want to be there and they are focused on providing customer value.


Today’s Challenge Question:  How high is engagement in your organization?  How do you measure engagement?  What do managers do to foster engagement?


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