Rules of Engagement

By Kris Dunn

Jul. 10, 2008

It’s buzzword bingo time. Do you have “engaged employees”?

    When pressed, most of us would have a hard time providing a scientific definition of employee engagement. Like style, we know it when we see it.

    Engagement is often confused with hours worked. I’ve been accused by others of being a workaholic. Need proof? Check out the comments to my past post on the wisdom of using an “Out of office” reply, where I was taken to task by those appalled that I dared to work on my BlackBerry while standing in a 60-minute line at Disney. Trust me (and the parents reading can back me up), standing in line at Disney isn’t quality time with the nuclear family. It’s a taxing cattle call we would all be well advised to survive through advanced technology.

    More important than the question of my work habits, or yours or those of the people you manage, is the question of employee engagement. Seth Godin penned a piece a while back that I thought was brilliant. The thesis is that engagement is an attitude or approach built on passion:

“A workaholic lives on fear. It’s fear that drives him to show up all the time. The best defense, apparently, is a good attendance record.

 “The passionate worker doesn’t show up because she’s afraid of getting in trouble, she shows up because it’s a hobby that pays. The passionate worker is busy blogging on vacation … because posting that thought and seeing the feedback it generates is actually more fun than sitting on the beach for another hour. The passionate worker tweaks a site design after dinner because, hey, it’s a lot more fun than watching TV.”

    We should all be fortunate enough to be so engaged in our careers that we actively seek opportunities to learn, regardless of time or location. It’s my personal definition of employee engagement.

    But not everyone works for passion. Can people who watch the clock be engaged employees? Is engagement an intrinsic quality that some people have and others don’t? Can a company raise engagement levels across their employee base?

    To answer those questions for yourself, you’ll first need to define employee engagement. Do a couple of Web searches, and you’ll learn that there’s little consensus and a lot of fuzzy math on what employee engagement really means. The gold standard seems to be research from Gallup, which lists the following traits when defining engaged employees:

  • Consistent levels of high performance.
  • Natural innovation and drive for efficiency.
  • Intentional building of supportive relationships.
  • Clear about the desired outcomes of their role.
  • Emotionally committed to what they do.
  • High energy and enthusiasm.
  • Never run out of things to do, create positive things to act on.
  • Broaden what they do and build on it.
  • Commitment to company, work group and role.

    Here are the scary stats. According to the Gallup research, only 29 percent of employees across corporate America are actively engaged in the workplace, 15 percent are actively disengaged, and 54 percent are somewhere in the middle—not disengaged, but not engaged either.

    Let’s assume for now that a “fully engaged” employee is one who scores high on all of the traits listed above. You still need to figure out how to make sure more than 29 percent of your team is actively engaged, and determine the best way to reach the pack of undecided employees (the 54 percent in the middle) and convert them to fully engaged status.

    As for the 15 percent who are actively disengaged, maybe Jack Welch was right about forced ranking. Whether you use forced ranking or are dealing with this surly bunch on a case-by-case basis via performance management, you have to deal with the problem. The grumpy bunch is going to be hard to save, and the last thing you want them doing is poisoning your dreamers or the fence-sitters.

    You don’t need a consultant to start getting more engagement out of your workforce. Some of the answers are common sense. Here are my thoughts as an HR pro on maximizing your employee engagement levels:

  1. Don’t hire clock watchers. As simple as it sounds, if having employees who are truly engaged is important to you (and it should be), you need to start with your hiring process. If you simply look for skills and experience, you’ll often miss the behavioral cues that identify a candidate with a high probability of being fully engaged (or fully disengaged). To beef up your selection process to screen for engagement probability, include behavioral interview questions (“Tell me about a time …”) that ask for clear examples of when the candidate has displayed the behaviors and traits listed in the Gallup research.

If a candidate struggles to give you relevant examples related to those traits, there’s no reason to think they’ll be fully engaged as a part of your company. You’re not Houdini. Move on and find someone who has displayed engagement traits in other workplaces.

  1. Start with the chiefs, not the Indians. You won’t be able to hire a team totally made up of engaged employees, and you can’t just throw a banner up that says “Employee Engagement Month” and think that can be your engagement strategy. Employee engagement starts at the top. You need managers and supervisors who understand the keys to engagement and who can help you create a work environment that fosters the engagement traits listed above. In short,your managers have to be coaches. Invest your first engagement dollars in training for your leadership team.
  2. Offer involvement and choice to draw out the fence-sitters. Read the reams of data on engagement and you’ll find that common ways to engage employees include offering involvement in decision-making and providing autonomy and choice when possible. Not rocket science, but most organizations aren’t set up to offer a lot of that. You’ll have to be OK with change and also OK with losing some control. That’s the cost of engagement.
  3. Coffee’s for closers. Last but not least, if you want to create an environment that fosters employee engagement, reward the engaged with all the premium projects and cool work your shop has to offer. Don’t send mixed messages and give grumpy loners the sweet gigs because they have the skills and it’s the easy thing for you to do. Take the time, be patient with the results and reward the engaged with the available project perks. Over time, you’ll be glad you did.

    Engagement is a fascinating topic, but it doesn’t have to be complex. Do yourself a favor and place as much emphasis as possible on the engagement traits in your hiring process. Create behavioral questions based on the traits, and ask for real examples. Hire those who have a track record of engagement over those who don’t, even if the latter have slightly better skills. You can also become more knowledgeable about the topic by reading credible online voices like Tim Wright, Judy McLeish and David Zinger.

    The engaged candidates will outthink, out-innovate and out-work the unengaged candidates every time. Figure out who they are before you hire them.

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor.

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