Two Paths to Sustainable Employee Engagement In the Digital Age

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Mar 22, 2019

Many global businesses are going through significant changes to stay relevant in a digital world that thrives on disruptive innovation and is mulishly unwilling to accept the conventional notions of management. This has profound implications for progressive organizations that are focused on retaining desired talent, a task made harder by the presence of a diverse and multi-generational workforce with different aspirations and motivations. In their desperation, these corporate entities will resort to a one-size-fits-all package without doing an exhaustive study of the ambition drivers for each major sect of employees.

This is exacerbated by the fact that very little real effort is made by the decision-makers to reach out to employees to include their voice in framing policies and procedures conducive to a healthy working relationship.

With the days of company loyalty long gone, the focus is increasingly on a mutually beneficial partnership where both parties — employer and employee — align their priorities for at least a reasonable amount of time. This is buoyed by a psychological contract that has also shifted from being blindly based on faith to being propped up on validated trust. Employee engagement is also gravitating towards a more purpose-driven display of altruistic professionalism from the more recognizable manifestation of organizational citizenship behavior.

Interestingly, most progressive organizations tend to start requiring employee engagement, rather than, expecting it as a natural offshoot of an enterprising culture based upon robust values. This has the downside of becoming a job specification, which brings shrewd actors into play who are enticed by the external motivation of rewards and recognition.

Consequently, the glamorization of employee engagement often eclipses the voluntary initiatives of the truly engaged employees who are driven by the intrinsic motivation of doing good as an affirmation of their professionalism. It is the resilience and character of the truly engaged employees that is the best hope for an organization to survive business upheavals in precarious economic conditions. This requires the presence of a conducive work environment that ensures sustainable employee engagement, instead of just achieving employee engagement.

There are two main paths to achieving sustainable employee engagement in the digital economy.

Path I (Aspiration-Focused)

This is adopted by corporate entities that feel burdened with the expectations of the key stakeholders and want to ensure smooth running of all operations. Performance expectations are clearly defined, and KRAs/KPIs are extravagantly used to monitor and improve any lagging parameters from the desired standards. Reward and Recognition elements are used to mask any signs of discontent.

Systems and policies are designed for resource optimization and workplace harmony. Feedback is taken periodically to proactively deal with any aspects that may interfere with  achieving targeted goals. Employees are considered valuable assets; however, their usefulness is contingent upon the rate of associated depreciation, especially, in view of technological advances. Consequently, high potentials are sorted out of the talent pool and given prime attention with the expectation that they will also be the role models for employee engagement initiatives.

Let’s take a brief look at each of the constituent steps to gain a better appreciation for going down the respective path.

Recruitment & selection (merit-based) — This refers to the practice of hiring desired talent according to clearly defined criteria designed to preclude exclusion or discrimination and meet applicable legal regulations and corporate mandates. It is primarily led by the HR/talent management function with necessary participation from other key stakeholders.

Employee orientation (relevance-based) — This refers to all the activities that are undertaken to ensure that new employees are fully cognizant of key policies applicable to them. It also sets the foundation for the relevant functional heads to guide their assigned staff in becoming valuable members of the team with clear understanding of the job expectations.

Performance management (competency-based) — This type of performance management is rooted in identifying, monitoring, improving and sustaining the desired competencies within the workforce. It ensures that the organization is never starved of the necessary behaviors, skills and knowledge needed to compete in an unforgiving market.

Reward & recognition (requirement-based) — This type of Reward & Recognition is derived from the fulfillment of certain requirements that are laid out in advance to all the key stakeholders. This can range from a conventional salary package to the application of total rewards over the employee lifecycle. It can also be used as golden handcuffs to retain desired talent.

Focused training & progressive development — This refers to training talent on the skills and knowledge deemed necessary as a result of shortcomings realized after performance appraisals or in management reviews. The associated developmental process is incremented in accordance with the level of skill achieved.

High potential recognition (criteria-based) — This refers to identifying the talent who have excelled in their current roles in accordance and are deemed suitable for future leadership positions. They are considered prized assets and get the attention of senior management. It remains a matter of debate whether such status should be kept confidential or conveyed openly.

Employee entitlement (status-based) — This refers to the psychological mindset of high-potentials as they are made aware formally or discover their special status within the workforce. On one hand, it can engender positive feelings of accomplishment, gratitude and motivation. On the other, it can increase narcissism, lead to class warfare with peers, claims of privilege and other undesirable behaviors.

Augmented activities (gain-based) — This refers to the type of extrinsic motivation tools that are deployed by the senior management to tighten the golden handcuffs on high-potentials in order to ensure retention while negating any attempts by competitors to wrestle them away. These can include higher bonuses, surprise holiday privileges, free memberships, socialization with senior leaders, etc.

Employee engagement (attitude-based) — This type of employee engagement is driven by intrinsic motivation. Generally, it is a reflection of an individual’s inherent attributes and, quite possibly, a result of his or her own success in overcoming serious challenges and achieving significant success.

Leadership development (need-based) — This type of leadership development is initiated in response to the demand for capable individuals to replace leaders exiting the organization. It is reactive in nature since the number of leaders leaving is largely known and within predictable limits. Necessary arrangements are made to ensure a smooth transition with minimal disturbance to operations.

Succession management (position-based) — This type of succession management is done by focusing on critical leadership positions within the organizational hierarchy. Care is taken to ensure there are no ambiguities in qualifications that need to be met to ensure a timely and suitable successor for departing leaders. Vacancies are sometimes split into two to avoid talent loss and facilitate closer focus.

Sustainable employee engagement (foreseeable future) — This refers to ensuring sustainable employee engagement within the predictable business cycle by keeping the high potentials motivated through timely and relevant leadership development and succession management initiatives. It involves keeping a close watch over their wellbeing and being reasonably accommodative to any fluctuation in professional expectations.

Path II (Inspiration-Focused)

This is embraced by corporate entities that strive to excel innovatively in producing the “delight” factors as a distinguishing feature of their organization’s effectiveness in being a formidable competitor. A cohesive culture that strengthens a diverse multi-generational bond binds all individual, team, functional and organizational aspirations in achieving goals.

Priority is given to organizational alignment in gauging performance. KRAs/KPIs facilitate, but do not overshadow the actual definition of success which focuses on building a closely knit professional community that is universally geared towards achieving desired objectives through responsible corporate governance. This balances the conventional coveting of rewards and recognition with the munificence of inter-human connectivity based upon shared values.

Let’s take a brief look at each of the constituent steps to gain a better appreciation for going down the respective path.

Recruitment and selection (culture-based) — This refers to giving top priority in hiring to  good cultural fit with the organization, rather than, prowess in a particular function. Such an approach is contingent upon the organization’s ability to provide a high quality of necessary training and development. It is primarily led by the HR/talent management function with participation from all the other key stakeholders.

Employee orientation (value-based) — This refers to exposing new hres to all the core aspects that are not only relevant to them, but also those of value for future career possibilities, cultural assimilation and professional interactions within the organization, e.g., learning about aligned functional areas, meeting distinguished previous employees, socializing with influential power brokers within the organization, etc. It requires keen participation from all the key stakeholders.

Performance management (alignment-based) — This type of performance management is focused on the congruence between the employee, the assigned role(s) and the work environment. It delves into the psychological makeup of the individual while polishing the desired competencies. It is concerned with the underlying personality in addition to the observable person. This requires close collaboration of managers, HR and a psychologist.

Reward & recognition (influence-based) — This type of reward & recognition is focused on the level of influence an employee exercises on all the determinants relating to career progression — peer relationships, supervisor interactions, customer interfaces, networking prowess, etc. It’s evaluated by using analytical tools such as 360 feedback, critical incident reports, activity logs, etc.

Dynamic training & impactful development — This refers to modeling the training & development according to the individual needs. It also liberates the training & development function to explore viable options that are outside the classroom, for example eLearning, virtual reality, mentor-guided projects and free-time for innovative experimentation.

Distinct talent recognition (initiative-based) — This refers to appreciating the unique value that each employee demonstrates, creating an unrestricted knowledge, skill, behavior & competency map for the whole organization. It requires astute discernment from the supervisor(s) and is geared towards alleviating the simmering resentments that may arise among peers who see identified high potentials as a privileged class and resort to politics for undermining their status.

Employee empowerment (enrichment-based) — Employees are enabled to make real-time decisions that are in congruence with organizational values. It elevates employees from being loyal abiders to model citizens in the execution of their job responsibilities and creates a rich hybrid of confidence and humility while learning from successes and failures. Such ownership also increases the pool of potential successors to key leadership positions and strengthens the employer brand.

Ebullient activities (passion-based) — This refers to finding the drivers for intrinsic motivation that can align their interests with the organization and dismiss thoughts of attrition. It requires clear communication and insightful understanding of what galvanizes employees into productive actions, e.g., office-time allocation for personal projects, participating in social entrepreneurship, adventure retreats with senior management, etc.

Employee engagement (purpose-based) — This type of employee engagement is a hybrid of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation uniting the employees under a core set of organizational values. It is both expected and nurtured as a key trait of being a team member. It is characterized by a focus on providing superior service with a healthy dose of “delight” factors.

Leadership development (want-based) — This type of leadership development focuses on preparing current and future leaders with the qualities that go beyond the requirements of the foreseeable future and which have a high probability of being in demand in the long term. Some of these are the ability to leverage big data to make critical business decisions, ability to integrate different mediums of technology to stay ahead of disruptive innovations and ability to interface with artificial intelligence as part of the diverse workforce.

Succession management (promise-based) — This type of succession management goes beyond the present hierarchical setup to anticipate what kind of organization needs to exist in the future. Such a measure ensures that the potential successors are prepared to take on not only the conventional leadership positions, but also, embrace roles that are either nonexistent or in their infancy at the present moment with high probability of becoming the norm in the long term.

Sustainable employee engagement (beyond horizon) — This refers to leadership development and succession management practices that focus on retaining the commitment of desired talent by leveraging their energy and imagination in achieving continuous  innovation. Such an undertaking requires that humanistic elements are combined with the judicious use of technology in order to meet the unforeseen challenges of the future.

Both of these paths lead to sustainable employee engagement, however, the second path is preferable as the more enduring approach. It provides a stronger impetus for maintaining an organization’s competitive edge.

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