6 Surprising Insights of Successful Employee Engagement

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Putting The Puzzle Together

Leaders finally realize the importance of a fully engaged workforce. Now they should learn what practices drive and sustain happy employees.

Finally, leaders are now convinced one of their last remaining competitive advantages lies with their people. Businesses have begun to signal to workers that their needs will now be honored on a scale only previously reserved for customers and shareholders.

Raising employee engagement has become one of the highest priorities for organizations all around the globe, according to a 2015 Conference Board CEO study.

While leaders have come to appreciate the importance of having a fully engaged workforce, they also have a very limited understanding of what practices truly drive and sustain it.

Researchers from Deloitte Consulting, Sirota, and the Conference Board combined efforts in October 2014, and performed a deep dive into 12 companies consistently recognized for having high-performing, employee-centric cultures. The end product of their study defined the common-denominator characteristics, or the DNA, of highly engaged organizations.

“Employee Engagement Can Never Be bought; It Must Be Earned.” 

Although the analysis was specifically performed to benefit the clients of the three respective organizations, I had the privilege of reading it, and later meeting with the leader of the project, Rebecca Ray PhD, executive vice president for human capital and engagement research at the Conference Board.

The study yielded many uncommon and useful insights, most especially these six:

  1. Engagement Is Still A New Concept

In the 1990s, William Kahn, professor of organizational behavior at Boston University, introduced the term engagement based on his observation that people have a choice as to how much of themselves they’re willing to invest in their jobs.

Kahn conducted in-depth interviews with employees at two organizations. He discovered they were far more emotionally and physically engaged when they experienced:

  • Psychological meaningfulness: a sense that their work was worthwhile and made a difference
  • Psychological safety: a feeling they were valued, accepted, and respected—and able to perform in a positive work environment
  • Availability: routinely feeling secure and self-confident while possessing the emotional and psychological energies to perform their job

Nearly 25 years later, these three elements remain at the core of most theories of employee engagement. It’s also important to note that pay isn’t even on the list.

While fair compensation will always be a key component of job satisfaction, it’s not a factor as a day-to-day motivator of engagement. Neither is whether a company can attract and retain talented people. The conclusion for organizations everywhere is this: Employee engagement can never be bought; it must be earned.

  1. Everyone Measure Engagement Differently, But The Findings Are The Same

Gallup reported in January 2015 that 30% of the working population in the United States is willing to do anything and everything they can to help their boss and organization succeed.

Many business leaders remain unpersuaded that engagement is anywhere near that dire in their respective organizations, often because they create their own surveys and don’t use the same tools as Gallup.

“There is really no way to compare organizations to organizations tied to survey data, simply because there’s no consistency in what questions get asked,” says Ray. “But most of the published engagement studies report the very same thing. Only a third of the population, more or less, is really engaged.”

  1. Low Engagement Can’t Be Entirely Pinned On Bad Managers

In April 2015, I wrote in Fast Company that directly expressed the idea that managers have the greatest impact on employee engagement.

While Ray doesn’t refute this, she’s nevertheless hesitant to say this “lays entirely at their feet.” Ray sees a workplace that changed profoundly amid the crash and recovery that began in 2008. Many companies removed multiple levels of management as cost-cutting and preservation-motivated measures. Consequently, many people who were individual contributors were additionally tasked with managing teams on top of their original roles.

The Culture You Create Or The Culture You Destroy Will Determine The Success Of Your Business”

“When you put pressure on people to perform in that kind of environment—and they themselves are scrambling to learn how to be a good manager—their go-to impulse is to just get the work done in any way they can,” Ray explains.

Ray also believes many companies have “broken the contract,” giving people far fewer reasons to be loyal and sacrifice their personal lives to their organizations.

“People feel there’s too little reward for their discretionary efforts,” she adds. “Most workers today have seen co-workers or family members get laid off, and also have had their benefits cut and bonuses frozen. All this just makes people focus on their survival.”

  1. Helping People Gain Back Time Is One Powerful Way Of Driving Engagement

With people spending most of their waking days at work, many have the additional stresses of raising children, caring for elderly parents, and dealing with long and tedious commutes.

Ray insists that companies have no direct responsibility for supporting employees with these challenges. “Smart employers are figuring out that helping people gain back time back in their day,” she says. This is an extremely powerful way of demonstrating how highly they are regarded.

Allowing people flexibility with work hours, where they work, and being willing to accommodate individual needs all have proved to have very positive impacts on performance and job satisfaction, the Conference Board study shows.

“Not everyone can work flexibly because of the nature of some roles,” Ray says. “But more and more, people are looking for that flexibility because it gives them the ability to exhale, and come at work very differently.”

  1. Quicken Loans: An Exampled Of What Full Engagement Looks Like

Organizations including Whole Foods, Alcoa, and NASA were profiled during the DNA study. However, Ray was emphatic in suggesting that mortgage giant Quicken Loans may now be the most actualized employer on the planet.

She stressed that few companies have committed themselves more to creating a positive and enabling workplace, which they fully leverage to drive high performance. In fact, Fortune magazine has ranked them as one of the Top 30 Best Places to Work in America for 11 consecutive years.

At Quicken Loans, employee engagement is not a process, a department, or a survey, states the DNA report. Engagement is part of the business strategy and culture. Much of this is owed to the vision and leadership of the company’s founder and chairman, Dan Gilbert.

Quicken Loans is headquartered in Detroit. As part of its mission, the company has made a deep commitment to helping that community recover from the devastating effects of the economic downturn.

Employees themselves frequently have written heartfelt letters to express how much a job at Quicken Loans has helped them turn their own lives around. “So many of the stories they tell about working there are things of kindness, things of caring about one another, or going the extra mile,” Ray says.

“If You Can, Get A Caring Manager Who Makes You Feel Valued And Respected—People Are Hesitant To Go Someplace Where They Might Not Be As Lucky With The Manager They Have Now.” 

Gilbert has created a culture that’s as demanding as it is nurturing. Once a year, he updates a book that describes all of the firm’s key values. He ensures every person knows what behaviors are rewarded, and what principles are to inform every decision.

Wanting all of his people to know and feel that they matter to the success of the company, Gilbert and CEO Bill Emerson, personally facilitate an eight-hour long orientation for all new employees.

Quicken Loans is intentionally generous with benefits and perks—which includes a concierge service—knowing that by highly supporting their people they’ll instinctively do the same for customers.

  1. A Caring Boss May Still Be The Greatest Driver of Engagement

Ray shared what she would say to large group of CEOs seeking to create high engagement in their companies.

“Many recruiters try to tell people how it’s going to be much better down the street,” she says. “But if you can get a caring manager who makes you feel valued and respected, people are hesitant to go someplace where they might not be as lucky as with the manager they have now. If you have a boss who cares about you, is interested in your development . . . if you find someone who has your back and has your best interests at heart, and wants to see you become better and more down the road, that’s one very powerful cocktail.”

Feeling Loved and respected At Work

With unemployment back to pre-recession levels and the job market heating up, people now have choices about where they work. All things equal, people will stay at a company where they feel loved, respected, and where they can do work they enjoy and believe in matters.

For all of us who manage other humans at work, we must always remember what Ray said was one of the most important conclusions of her research: “The culture you create or the culture you destroy will determine the success of your business.”


photo credit: Putting The Puzzle Together via photopin (license)

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Mark Crowley

Mark Crowley

Mark C. Crowley is a speaker, leadership consultant, frequent contributor to Fast Company Magazine, and the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century. His mission is to fundamentally change how we lead and manage people in the workplace, and to intentionally make it far more supportive of human needs. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, and at his website.