Q: I want to be a great leader. What's this thing called "employee engagement" I've been hearing about? Is it just consultants coming up with some new term to sell me their services, or what? I'm hoping it's real. Economic times are tough. I need something to get more out of the team I lead. - Bewildered of Birkenhead
A: Dear Bewildered of Birkenhead,
The phrase "employee engagement" might be new and it certainly is flavour of the month in leadership literature, but the underlying concept is true and timeless human nature.
Employee engagement is not "morale" or "satisfaction" or "happiness". Plenty of unhappy people are highly productive and plenty of deliriously happy folk are fine with showing up, punching a clock, getting paid and going home regardless of whether anything productive happens. Employee engagement is the extent to which an employee chooses to apply discretionary effort. It's doing more than you have to because you choose to.
So, there are engaged employees doing more than they have to, present employees who do only what they have to, and disengaged employees who are reading this careers section at work to find a new job with anyone who isn't you. The numbers vary a little across time, industry and geography, but they're remarkably consistent: 26 per cent are engaged, 28 per cent are disengaged and 46 per cent are present.
These are averages. What are the proportions in your workplace?
Q: I'm sold on the idea of employee engagement but what specific and practical steps can I take in the workplace I lead to improve it? If we can get it right now when times are tough, we'll knock our performance out of the park once the economy picks up. - Audacious of Albany.
A: Dear Audacious of Albany,
The first thing you should sort before embarking on a major engagement project is: "Is it worth it?"
Improving employee engagement is worth it - not out of any warm fuzziness but because of its demonstrable effect on tangible business results.
A 10 per cent increase in engagement leads to a $12,130 increase in earnings for an employee and a 2.4 per cent reduction in annual staff turnover. (A popular rule of thumb is that the direct cost of replacing an employee is their annual salary.) A 15 per cent increase in engagement correlates to a 2.2 per cent increase in operating margins, plus the benefits of lower absenteeism, higher customer satisfaction, and more efficient production..
A common first thought with leaders is to attract and recruit people who are already highly engaged. This can work but there's a downside. These people are talented, popular and transient. If you think you can lure them with shiny things and financial carrots you may be right but someone else will have bigger carrots and shinier things.
The biggest bang for your buck might come from that 46 per cent of people you already employ who are merely present.
What can you to do to move them up a notch?
Enhancing employee engagement is all about long-term and consistent incremental improvements.
Let's look at what you can stop doing that might be preventing engagement, because once-engaged employees who become less engaged can cause more harm to a company than those who were never engaged. Research by the Florida State University College of Business found that, "Model employees committed to their organisation are willing to go the extra mile to see it thrive but can give up if they sense that they're being asked to do more and more, and with fewer resources, while comparatively little is being asked of their less-engaged colleagues." So, don't do that then. Engaged employees don't give up but they might give up on you.
Three areas you must focus on are providing chances for people to master new talents so job rotation can work wonders, get a sense that they're not just a cog in a machine, and encouraging people to see that what they do matters.
Tell them. Show them.
Q: I read the minutes of my manager's leadership team meeting and there's a project coming up to increase employee engagement levels. Is this going to hurt? - Repressed of Glenfield.
A: Dear Repressed of Glenfield,
Q: What is with these bloody young people today wanting to enjoy their work and feel like they're achieving something of worth in their lives? They're getting paid to do a job. They should shut up and damn well do it. I was in the war you know, just can't recall which one at the moment. - Curmudgeon of Khandallah.
A: Dear Curmudgeon of Khandallah,
First, I notice that Khandallah is a Wellington suburb and you seem to be so passionate in making your feelings of outrage known that you're expending time and effort to write to an Auckland newspaper. Perhaps you're so highly engaged in this activity that you're doing it and caring about the results even though you're not being paid to do it.
You might be right that people should do what they're paid to do but then it should always be sunny wherever I'm on holiday and I should have got that puppy for my 10th birthday. The "should" argument doesn't work for 10-year-olds and it won't work in the real world of work for leaders. They need a consistent and planned approach to providing greater opportunities for personal development and mastering new skills, greater levels of autonomy within clearly understood parameters and cultivating a sense of contributing to a purpose bigger than just making rent. Leaders can bemoan "shoulds" as much as they like. It's more effective to work with human nature than against it.
Doctors have their oath and the first part is about at the very least not doing harm. Leaders, when it comes to motivating their people, could, at the very least, take that page out of the doctors' book. (Don't take a page out of their prescription pad though. You'll never read their handwriting.)
• Terry Williams is a speaker, comedian and author of The Brain-Based Boss.