4 Steps to Make Sure You Aren’t Making Engagement Optional

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Apr 24, 2012

Employee engagement is big business.

In fact, the recent research done by the Society for Human Resources Management and reported on here at TLNT revealed that employee engagement is the number one concern among HR professionals. Clearly, we have become convinced that employee engagement should be a primary outcome of our management and leadership practices at our organizations.

When you ask most of the experts to define employee engagement, some part of the definition will include the application of discretionary effort by the employee. Translated to normal language, that means that employees are so into their jobs that they are willing to go above and beyond the call of duty on a regular basis.

Improvement or entitlement?

That sounds great, doesn’t it? Having a whole company of people who are willingly giving more than is expected of them is very appealing, hence our attraction to the idea of employee engagement.

The problem when it comes to engagement is in how we are approaching its measurement and management.

If you’ve worked in mid to large-sized companies, you are familiar with the practice of employee engagement surveys and you’ve seen the fire drill that often accompanies these efforts. While surveying employees is a good thing and desiring engagement is also a good thing, the problem underlying these engagement surveys is that they are assuming that it’s a company’s responsibility to engage each employee.

The practice of surveying for employee engagement walks a fine line between improvement effort and creation of entitlement. The fundamental question that marks the difference between the two is this: when did being engaged in your job become optional?

Isn’t this what we pay people for?

When you step back for a moment and think about it, isn’t engagement what we are paying for when we bring someone onto our payroll as an employee? Shouldn’t employee engagement be a requirement of any job? Of course it should. And, at one time in our history, I think engagement may have been expected.  That appears to have changed.

Employee engagement is an individual choice that each employee makes on a daily basis (either consciously or subconsciously). They choose to give their all, to slack off or something in between. It’s their choice. Managers can’t create engagement any more than they can create happiness or turn lead into gold.

What they can do is make engagement a requirement of the job. Great managers and leaders recognize that a disengaged employee is making a choice to be that way.

In order for that same employee to become engaged, they have to make a different choice (or series of choices). The leader’s responsibility is to help each individual make that choice and hold them accountable to it. If an employee won’t make the choice to engage, then they are making the choice to move on. There can be no third choice where an employee hangs around, waiting to see if the company will give them enough stuff or make enough changes for them to decide to give over the gift of their engagement. That’s called emotional blackmail and it shouldn’t be tolerated.

Warning signs you’re making it optional

Engagement can’t be optional, at least not if you intend to have a high performing company that attracts the best talent. If you are on board, you are all in. That’s a reasonable expectation for someone to whom you are paying a salary.

Next time your organization is about to head down the path of conducting an employee engagement survey, consider whether your process is making engagement optional for your employees. Look for these warning signs:

  • You talk about using the results of the survey to “drive higher engagement” rather than to drive better performance.
  • You have a process where a leader can create an after-survey action plan without extensive input from their team thus implying that engagement is the manager’s sole responsibility.
  • You train managers on how to action plan, but not on how to coach employees for their commitment to their work and their results.
  • After receiving the results of your survey, you spend more time focusing on what environmental changes you can make to “improve engagement” and little or no time talking about how to work directly with your disengaged employees on how to help them decide to either be fully on board or out the door.

4 steps you can take

If you really want to have an impact on your organization through engagement, It may require that you undo some damage that you’ve inadvertently done already. If you discover that you have indeed made engagement optional at your company, you aren’t alone. And, it’s not too late to do something about it.

Here’s how where to start:

  1. Decide to make engagement a mandatory requirement of working at your company.
  2. To do this, you must get very clear on what engagement is for your company. This means having a clear definition and helping leaders and employees understand what it looks like.
  3. Then, teach your managers how to coach employees on their decision to be fully engaged and what to do if they are not.
  4. Finally, when you conduct your engagement survey, make it less about measuring engagement and more about discovering how to help your best employees to be more effective at driving the company forward.

Employee engagement is good, powerful even. So, why not expect make it an expectation?

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