Probably everyone has heard the phrase “employee engagement”, but for many who have, unless they are in HR, few will know exactly what it is, why it’s important and that every leader needs to make it happen to so they, their team and organisation more successful.
As a leader, it is your route to success. HR can support you but, in the end, it’s about what you do, no one else. In a wider context, all employers, and senior leaders in particular, need to pay more attention to organisational and team engagement. Each year if possible conduct employee engagement surveys to make sure employees are having a great employee experience. Because if they aren’t they won’t be performing well and may be thinking of leaving.
Engaging your people is how you maximise your potential to achieve real success for any organisation set against any important factors you care to mention, from customer experience to risk management and high performance to innovation.
This isn’t some soft fluffy idea about being nice to people this is a proven evidence-based organisational strategy for success and maximised return on investment.
Having an employee engagement strategy will enhance employee experience, boost employee satisfaction and thus build an engaged workforce. That is one of the best ways to minimise employee turnover, increase quality of work and boost morale across the entire organization.
But also a great way to grow positive core values and company culture which then enhances the organisation’s success long term.
Certainly, anyone in senior leadership roles needs to understand in detail what employee engagement is and how to optimise it within their area of responsibility.
At C suite employee engagement is not just a responsibility of HR, it’s the strategic responsibility of everybody at senior level to role model it and to support it. In particular, the CFO, as it will maximise the return on investment from human capital.
What is employee engagement?
There are numerous technical definitions of employee engagement but to keep it simple and practical you can say that “engaged” employees are people who are genuinely giving their best at work.
Thus when you see a figure for employee engagement in an employee engagement survey this is the percentage of employees in the organisation who are doing that. Employee engagement is the process by which organisations seek to get more of their employees engaged and thus giving their best.
It is worth mentioning “discretionary effort” here. This is effectively the amount of effort an individual can withhold but it is unlikely to be identified that they are doing so via performance management. In other words, they will be rated as performing satisfactorily but yet there could be up to 30% extra effort they could give if they were engaged. It is this the additional effort employee engagement is seeking to gain to maximise organisational performance.
Why do all leaders need to know about employee engagement ?
Just reflect on the potential impact of a significant proportion of an organisation’s employees giving 30% more effort. Better employee engagement will enable any organisation doing anything anywhere to be more effective and successful. But it is individual leaders above all who have to make it happen. Simply because the vast majority of factors which influence how engaged people are relate directly to the behaviour of their boss.
In the final analysis no matter what senior leaders are doing, no matter what HR is doing, if the employee’s own boss is not taking day-to-day action to engage them then it just won’t happen.
Those actions which increase our engagement do so not because of the job that we do but because we are human. So, for example, my report for the King’s Fund on developing leadership in the NHS to enhance patient care submitted to the UK government enhancing employee engagement proposed the same core strategy and actions just as much as when I proposed them as a key element in enabling better financial performance at UBS and transformation at London Underground during restructuring. I’ve also helped deliver them in construction, not-for-profit and other sectors. They work everywhere. They work not because of our job or the organisation but because we are human.
Why employee engagement? The return on investment
There is a vast resource of data based on studies of all types from organisations, professional bodies, consultancies, academic institutions, and other sources which show that high employee engagement improves performance in many areas. This vast resource of data confirms that when employees are engaged, and therefore giving their best, the positive impacts are not restricted to their own performance but apply to everything from customer service to cost efficiency and operational risk management.
Simple day-to-day employee engagement actions by their boss can significantly boost the effort that individuals give. For example, if your boss does these things versus a boss who can’t be bothered then this is the potential extra effort uplift from individuals:
When you multiply up the impact of all leaders taking these actions at a strategic level it has a significant effect. The UK Government Report, Engage for Success, for which I was part of the Expert Panel, has many examples and evidence of return on investment from employee engagement. One of the most important is that if every leader in the organisation starts to engage their people effectively you could potentially get 30% more effort, the discretionary effort, from 60% of people.
Depending on business model, margins and other factors that could deliver up to 10% on the bottom line for free. In anybody’s book, in particular a CFOs book, that’s not a bad return on investment.
Here are a few others:
Companies with high engagement are 71% more likely to outperform their peers in the sector.
Can produce Earnings per share 2.6 times higher than competitors with low engagement (Gallup)
Could increase revenue by up to 43% (Hay)
Bank branches with high employee engagement achieved 16% high-profit margin growth than those with lower scores (Standard Chartered)
Engagement can halve days lost through sickness (CBI)
Once, after I spoke on this to a group of CEOs and CFOs on why they need to significantly increase their efforts on employee engagement, the CFO of a major telecoms company came to me and said “Chris why has nobody told me about this before? This is a no brainer! It’s a license to print money if we get it right!”. It is indeed !
The fact that these figures are to some degree so dismal should make every leader reading this ask why, given how simple it is to improve employee engagement, are we languishing at these levels? But the flip side is that it’s a great opportunity for you to take action and get some great easy wins.
Clearly, these are country or region-wide figures and lack the accuracy of survey results from an in-house employee survey which is run on a regular basis but they are a useful indicator.
What’s hidden under the surface you need to know
It is not just the “engaged” employee figure which is important. The “not engaged” and “disengaged” are also very important to be aware of. You have probably never been told about them but this is why you really need to know. You can work on the principle that of those who are not in the “engaged” group, ie 100% of employees minus the “engaged” – probably 70 – 80% of this group are “not engaged” and 20- 30% are “disengaged”.
The “not engaged” are sometimes giving their best sometimes not but they are your potential “engaged”, some of whom will move to become that relatively easily with proactive improved leadership from their boss. These are your real target to get greater engagement, greater performance and greater success. They are your easy win. Within this group are likely to be Quiet Quitters – those not giving their best and also potentially planning to leave when they can.
The disengaged employee is perhaps one of the biggest challenges, needing a really good reason for them to become a satisfied employee.
I suspect the “disengaged” is also a problem no one has probably told you about. These are people who really don’t care about the organisation, their team, their boss and maybe even their colleagues. They will do as little work as possible, to the lowest standard acceptable, and generally get away with as much as they can.
But it is possible to move them to at least “not engaged”, but maybe even to “engaged” if you find the driver for their disengagement. From experience, these aren’t bad people it’s just there is an issue of some type. Find that issue and resolve it, and yes, if you do that I have seen “dis-engaged” move straight to “engaged” because their boss solved the problem and showed they cared.
But if they will not change then, for the benefit of others, maybe they need to move on, but they must be given the opportunity to change first.
Why employee engagement matters – you as a leader
Proactively taking action to improve the engagement of your people is probably the best single strategy for any leader to improve the performance of not only individual people but also of their team and its contribution to the wider organisation. Engaged people will be inspired, they will help the team work more effectively and that will make your life easier. Not only that but the delivery of greater success by the team will demonstrate your success to your boss, to peers and to the wider organisation.
So for any leader, better employee engagement delivers better performance, positive feedback and potential promotion. Bearing in mind that improving employee engagement can be achieved by simple day-to-day actions which take virtually no time, cost no money, and which you are already doing some of, in terms of a return on investment of your time as a leader it’s about as good an investment that anyone could make.
Why employee engagement matters – C Suite and the organisation
If you are in C suite in the organisation very much the same principles apply. From the perspective of C-Suite if you know individual leaders can achieve a significant uplift in performance through better employee engagement via simple day-to-day actions then obviously enabling your own team and then every leader in the organisation to do the same makes perfect sense.
So inherently any actions taken by C-Suite to make this happen more widely create a leverage effect across the organisation. The more levels this happens at, the more places in which it happens, the greater the success it will deliver.
But the criticality of the role of senior leaders and C-Suite is not only how they support the improvement of employee engagement through the development of leaders and the support that HR gives but it’s also by their own example. We know from experience, and it’s supported by the evidence, that people copy the behaviour of their boss or those perceived to be key influencers within an organisation.
So the simple reality is that if C suite is not leading by example on engaging people the likelihood of the true potential of the organisation being realised is significantly reduced. Not only does an example from the top encourage leaders below to do the right thing it also creates a further multiplier effect on the effort which can be encouraged by people across the organisation as we will see later.
Why employee engagement matters – from reactive to proactive
So I’ve said that better employee engagement delivers a significant positive impact but how does that work? It’s about two key areas, overall effort given, in technical terms giving that “discretionary” effort and moving from reactive to proactive. The potential effort boost has been set out earlier but often little is said about the change from reactive to proactive. This leverages the additional effort given into areas where previously it might not have been.
What’s very powerful from my experience is that as the employee’s mindset changes their approach to their work becomes a more proactive outward-looking approach which makes a real difference. What do I mean by that? A simple practical example is an employee who is “not engaged” may see something going wrong which is not directly their responsibility. They probably won’t say anything to their boss about this unless they are asked specifically, and maybe not even then. The “engaged” employee however will see what’s going wrong and, even though it might not be their responsibility, will probably tell their boss, or someone else, about it.
Why does this happen? Simply because people who are “not engaged” tend to just do their job and nothing more, especially if they are “quiet quitters”. However, those who are “engaged” give their best to the organisation. This inherently means they care about the organisation and its success in a context that is wider than just doing their job. As a result, if they see anything which potentially threatens success, or indeed things which could better deliver that success, they are likely to speak out.
That effect is enhanced further if everyone around them is also engaged. Creating a culture where everyone is proactively giving their best and seeking opportunities for the organisation to be more successful, to flourish, will have a significant positive impact. It’s that “buzz” you can sense in an organisation where it exists. Where people are enjoying work so much they would never consider leaving. It’s what I call the “We not Me” culture.
Can better employee engagement help you beat your Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting ?
Great employee engagement will not only help you beat the Great Resignation, and yes it is still out there, but also minimise the loss of your best people in the future.
It’s worth saying briefly that the Great Resignation was driven by three key factors,
1 – The change in perception about the value of life and well-being versus work as the result of Covid experiences,
2 – The resultant lower tolerance level amongst employees for low-quality leadership and poor organisational culture,
3 – The fact that no one had been able to change jobs for two years when they wanted to.
The combination of these three created a perfect storm of people who wanted to change jobs quickly. There was a recorded reduction in employee engagement in 2021 and 2022, set against consistent rises over the previous ten years which demonstrates that something significant happened. Engagement clearly fell in the US. Thus either leaders got worse or the benchmark against which people were measuring them increased. More than likely the latter.
These drivers continue to cause employees, especially talent, to leave organisations, or to stay and Quiet Quit if they can’t leave. So what’s great about better employee engagement is that as well as minimising leaving it’s also likely to minimise Quiet Quitting – those who would leave for the reasons set out if they could but can’t so they stay and minimise their effort until they can.
Where leaders proactively engage their people via simple actions it will mitigate these risk drivers. The higher employee engagement the more likely the organisation will be able to prevent these drivers of departure and from being a constant threat.
Can better employee engagement improve remote working?
First of all, it’s worth restating that only somewhere in the region of 30% of people can remote work, everybody else has to do their job where the job needs to be done. So whilst a lot of attention has been focused on hybrid working it only applies to a minority of employees. This is worth bearing in mind when considering the overall larger employee engagement picture.
The evidence from the Covid remote working experience shows that those working remotely, if supported effectively by their boss and the organisation, can improve performance, deliver their best work and have better well-being. If employees are engaged it is likely they will be more engaged in both the workplace and when working remotely. And there are situations where remote working can be preferable.
Certainly where the work being done requires peace and quiet to enable full concentration, or to enable individual creativity, doing so remotely works significantly better than in a busy distracting office environment. Being distracted from work can cause you to take 25 minutes to get back to full concentration.
But Covid remote working also showed that if remote work is not structured and supported by the individual’s boss this can lead to overwork, disconnection from the team and the organisation and in some cases even mental health problems. Lack of regular feedback was a feature here, the bare minimum is not enough for remote employees.
So when employees are remote working actions to engage by their boss are as important if not more so than when in the workplace. That said with careful planning of the balance between remote and in-office work, which hybrid offers, many of these issues should be addressed.
It’s also worth noting here that when people state that they would much rather work at home than in the office that is not necessarily either an implication that they do genuinely want to spend more time at home or that they don’t like being in the office. There are other considerations that people bear in mind, for example, a study by Kings College London found that only 15% of people said they wouldn’t work in the office but over 60% said that the reason they didn’t want to was the time and cost of travelling to do so. That factored into 80% saying the top benefit of working from home was avoiding travel, higher than the 66% who quoted family responsibility flexibility.
These nuances mean that leaders must talk with their people to understand the optimum way of working and how individuals need to be engaged to give their best both in and out of the office. Thus for hybrid working to be optimised and engagement maximised it’s not about overarching fixed organisational rules, ie everyone one in the office 2 days a week, applied to all, but about tailoring by line managers. In so doing these conversations and actions will boost engagement. Tailoring should focus on :
Individual’s needs and wishes
The make-up of their work within the role
The need for face-to-face team interaction and collaboration to deliver objectives
The need to ensure the organisation’s vision, values and culture are embedded at all levels.
This is effectively good employee engagement. While C-Suite and HR can provide examples and guidance, in the final analysis, this is the responsibility of the individual’s boss to make this happen and in that way optimise the hybrid equation. But they need organisational support in doing so.
How to maximise employee engagement
1. Get your task management slick
This will probably be the first time that you have ever seen task management skills quoted in relation to employee engagement. And that’s one of the problems as to why employee engagement might not be as good as it should be in our organisations, simply because this critical factor is often totally ignored.
You need to have the bandwidth to do your own tasks and engage your people as well. If your own task management skills aren’t slick you might have trouble finding time to engage your people.
So what are task management skills? These are simple basic skills that enable you and the team to get what needs to be done as quickly and effectively as possible within the time and resources that you have. They are:
Time management – are you delivering that work as effectively as possible using time management and simple planning tools?
Delegation – if you are a leader are you delegating effectively to ensure other people can do what they can do and you do what only you can do? Good delegation is a key engagement driver.
Communication – are you communicating effectively? Is communication open so other people understand what you are doing, what needs to be done, and their role in that as concisely and clearly as possible so that there is no doubt in their mind? Are you also helping them understand the bigger picture so that if the first plan fails they can adapt appropriately to still deliver? Are you also answering the ” what’s in it for me?” question? All these boost engagement.
Giving feedback – are you able to give other people constructive feedback on what they are doing, or have done, in a way that enables them to know how they are doing, engages them, shows how they can potentially get better and motivates them to do so? Again a key engagement driver.
I am regularly told by people that it’s quite clear from the actions of their boss that the boss is more focused on the task than on them, especially if they have asked for help and not received it. They quickly assume that their boss doesn’t care about them. That might not be correct but if it’s the perception they develop you can be sure this individual is unlikely to be engaged, giving their best for that boss, and maybe they could be thinking of leaving.
Having seen these situations on many occasions it’s rarely that the boss doesn’t care it’s just that their task management skills are lacking and they are frantically trying to stay on top of the job so it doesn’t go wrong. That’s not just my supposition based on the evidence of what I have seen over 35 years in leadership it’s also borne out by a number of studies. But it’s also borne out by what leaders tell me, and what you have probably seen over your career.
There is a real task management skill shortage in organisations. Every time I speak to a group of leaders I always ask them the simple question “how many of you in this room have, at any point in time in your career, ever been given any formalised training or development in how to delegate effectively?” In 10 years, other than for military and emergency service audiences, no audience has more than 20 to 25% indicated they had been trained to delegate effectively. Have you?
At one leadership conference, only 8 of over 600 raised their hands. If it’s a critical part of the leader’s day-to-day role to delegate then if 75% of leaders have not been taught how to do so effectively it begs question what’s the impact of this? If they had how much difference could it make? If I have time when speaking I run a very simple exercise that takes less than 5 minutes in which I discover if those in the room could delegate more effectively and what benefit would accrue.
The results are quite staggering, within those 5 minutes on average in any audience the vast majority will have discovered they have an extra half working day a week of time. Think of someone who has been a leader for 20 years, how much more time could they have spent engaging their people if they had been taught to delegate effectively from their first leadership role? But the good news for them is that now they have the way to get that extra time then from now on they can use it to proactively engage their people so that everyone wants to give their best.
Many leadership experts and speakers will just give you a list of things to do to engage people. The problem is that the list is useless if you don’t have time to do them. That’s why this Firm Foundation is so critical to employee engagement. You need to self-assess whether your Firm Foundation is in place to give you time to take the simple actions to engage. If not take action to ensure it is !
2. Simple actions to engage and get the best
What is strange for me writing an article on how to maximise employee engagement is that most leaders know how to engage their people well but don’t realise they know! You already know how to get the best from people even if you have only just taken up your first leadership role. That’s because most of us at some point in our career will have had a boss who genuinely inspired us, who made us want to get up and go to work, who made us happy at work which helped make us happy out of work. We remember how great that felt. We need to do the same for our people.
So we need to reflect on what that very special boss did day-to-day that made them so special and which then made us give our best. Yes, there are many places where you can get a list of things you need to do to get the best from people and boost employee engagement. But why use somebody else’s list when, within your experience, you have your own list of actions that you know personally inspired you and will therefore probably inspire others as well? You will implement your list which resonates with you much better than someone else’s which doesn’t.
How do you do that? Just by simply reflecting on what that special boss did day-to-day that was different from other bosses and just writing it down. You should get a list of 10 to 14 simple day-to-day actions that helped encourage you to give your best. If you do more of each of these with your people you will get the best from them, making them engaged employees and building a great team. Here are a few which always come up:
Set realistic but challenging targets
Kept me informed about what was going on
Let me get on with things and didn’t interfere – empowered me.
If you want to take your courage into your hands you can ask your team. Tell them that you want to grow and develop and to be a more effective leader for them. Ask them what they think you’re doing well, what you should do more of, what you should do less of, how can you help them be better, and how they think you could be better. For a team member, there is really no greater demonstration of trust by their boss than when that boss genuinely asks them for feedback on how they can be a better boss.
3. Alignment is vital – engagement isn’t enough!
The problem with most writing on employee engagement which purports to set out a road map to successfully implement it is that it leaves out the final step. This step is not technically “employee engagement” but it ensures that employee engagement is successful in terms of maximising the performance of the organisation and that it delivers a maximum return on investment for the time you spend engaging your people.
As we have all seen from our experience it is perfectly possible for individuals or a team to spend a lot of time focusing effort on something which doesn’t really make any difference at all to the success of the organisation. The cause of this is often a failure to align operational activity to strategic objectives. So it’s critical to ensure that the great extra effort people are giving when they become engaged is accurately focused on delivering what supports the achievement of strategic objectives.
Leaders at all levels from C-Suite down must make sure that there is an effective line of sight between the objectives set for departments, teams, and even individuals through to the delivery of strategic objectives. And that is aided by the fact that a critical part of employee engagement is to enable employees to understand their role in the big picture as this delivers both greater effort and alignment.
So the final step in successful employee engagement is alignment of effort on to strategic objectives with everyone understanding the big picture.
Boosting employee engagement – The C suite
If you are C suite you have 3 roles in employee engagement. First, your role as the boss of your direct reports, second your role as a strategic influencer in your organisation and third being responsible for setting up the support systems in both line management and HR that enable leaders at all levels to engage their people to get the best from them.
As a boss, you need to consider using those simple day-to-day actions which any leader needs to take to engage their people as you discovered in your list.
As a strategic leader, people watch your example and will copy it, so you have a perfect opportunity to role model the behaviour that you expect every other leader in the organisation to demonstrate to engage their people. In addition it is you who can ensure an effective system is in place to help line managers maximise their ability to engage their people.
But it’s also worth noting that the actions of strategic leaders can have a multiplier effect on the impact of the actions taken by individual bosses across the organisation.
These actions create an overarching culture of engagement across the organisation which people observe in addition to what they see in their team. The result has what I describe as a double engagement effect. Does it make a difference? Evidence from Corporate Executive Board would suggest that actions focused on the following by C suite or senior leaders have multiplier effects on employee effort as follows:
Boosting employee engagement – as a colleague
Even as a colleague you can play an essential role in employee engagement because whilst the main influencer of positive employee engagement is everyone’s boss those who work with you, be that in the team, or your peers, or elsewhere in the organisation, are influenced by you and they influence you.
So you can play your role in boosting employee engagement across the organisation by simply doing the same things which everyone’s boss should be doing, eg support, engage, develop, and work collaboration with your colleagues. As a colleague, there is no reason why you cannot support and help your colleagues develop, why you can’t show genuine interest in them, why you can’t ask them for their ideas, why you can’t help them understand the big picture through what you do.
Doing every single one of these things will help you engage your colleagues positively via a very simple and proven psychological response called reciprocation. They will then do the same for you.
Employee engagement – the ripples impact everywhere
If you can get people more engaged using these simple powerful steps so that they are giving their best it will have a major impact, and not just at the personal level in terms of their job. In addition, they will care about the success of the organisation, they will be looking out for opportunities to make themselves, the team and the organisation more successful.
The ripples of positive impact spread out across all parts of the organisation. Some you may never see but they are still there and making a holistic difference. Over my career, and supported by the evidence, I have seen improvements in all of the following areas as a result of increasing employee engagement:
Boosted individual performance
Better customer service
Smoother change and transformation
Enabling innovation and disruptive thinking
Finding cost efficiencies
Building the brand – every employee a proactive brand ambassador
Enhancing operational and reputational risk management
Development of personal and organisational capability for the future
A deeper understanding of the big picture to align operational activity to strategic objectives.
Enhancement of collaboration and breaking down of silos
Retention of talent and expansion of the talent pool
Attraction and recruitment of best future employees through personal networks of current employees
Return of the most talented employees after a career development break with another organisation.
What next? Your employee engagement action plan
As an individual leader
In the modern workplace, an engaged workforce inspired by team leaders is one of the main reasons better business outcomes are delivered. It’s about getting people to give their best and the easiest way for you to decide on actions that will achieve that is to focus on those actions you revealed in the list you did of the actions your best boss.
As a leader this isn’t about a complicated strategy it’s about deciding on one, two or three simple things you’re going to do more of every day to encourage people to give their best and so get them engaged. That might be to proactively ask people for their ideas when you’re briefing them on work that you want them to do, it might be making more effort to understand that people do make genuine mistakes and respond to that positively as a learning event rather than a blame event, or it might just be simply asking people how they’re doing and showing an interest to show that you genuinely care.
Hit the easy wins first
There are the technical best practices for employee engagement and then there are the quick and simple real-world easy wins. Yes, you have your “engaged”, they are doing great, but your easy win target is in your “not engaged”. It’s a group I call the “nearly engaged”. These are the 20% of the “not engaged” closest to becoming engaged. You can probably tell who they are on your team, those who are not quite fully committed, but close.
This is a real target area for quick wins. Focus effort on these people in particular, reach out to them, support them, and use your “best boss” actions with them. They just need a little extra care and they will quickly move over the line into your “engaged”. Just doing this could get your engagement figure for the team easily up by 10% or more. Working with many leaders and organisations I have suggested they think about their teams and identify their “nearly engaged”, then reach out. Try it, it works.
As C suite
As C-suite, it’s about taking these actions for your team but also as a strategic leader it’s about creating the example and support system down the line management chain so all leaders can get the best and engage their people with HR support as well, inspired by your example. The easy win “nearly engaged” group is also a great target for an organisation-wide engagement push.
Finally – We are all Human
Above all employee engagement is about understanding what we as human beings want out of work and life, and that’s in many ways the same for all of us. It’s consistent, it doesn’t really change with time and we all have our own experience of it.
As Aristotle said “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work”, that’s as true now as it was 2500 years ago and making it happen through employee engagement is so simple. So whether you are a team leader, in the C suite, or just a colleague, reach out today and start to engage with those around you so both they and you engage to genuinely give your best to deliver success for everyone.
Chris Roebuck — Keynote speaker on high performance, leadership and transformation
Hear more from Chris Roebuck and his insights into the world of leadership and business on subjects such as employee engagement, entrepreneurial leadership, brand ambassadors, mentoring talent development and neuroscience for leaders.