According to the Gallup organization, only 3 out of 10 American workers are engaged at work. How can this possibly be true, when “employee engagement” seem to be discussed almost constantly at conferences, in books and other publications and online? For example, a Google search on “employee engagement” produces more than 7,000,000 hits. Research study after study, including in government, has shown that high-engagement organizations outperform low-engagement organizations in results that matter such as financial performance, productivity, achievement of strategic goals, customer satisfaction, retention, attendance and so on.
I recently attended the annual meeting of the Engagement Institute, a public-private consortium of organizations focused on measuring and improving employee engagement. In addition to my employer, the University of Wisconsin, members include federal agencies such as NASA; nonprofits like the Mayo Clinic; and large corporations such as Apple, General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, Michelin and others. The focus included what organizations and leaders are doing to improve engagement – to create a “culture of engagement.”
With attention like this, why is engagement low? I think there are several reasons.
We still don’t have a common understanding of what employee engagement is. As I wrote in my book, Engaging Government Employees, while doing research for the book I came across a LinkedIn discussion about what drives employee engagement (oddly, this was posted next to another question, “Are you sure your employees are washing their hands?” But that’s a topic for another day.)
The day I checked, 124 LinkedIn members had posted answers, including the following:
- Creating conversations where none existed
- Work gratification
- Compelling vision
- Personal connection
- And love (platonic, I assume)
As one of the LinkedIn commenters observed, “Clearly from these comments there is no consensus … Every possible positive quality is seen to be a driver. No wonder many people working in this field don’t know where to start, and how.”
There seems to be as many definitions and ways to measure engagement as there are consultants and companies operating in the engagement “space.”
If we want to improve engagement, we need to understand what it is. One definition I believe is particularly useful (and was developed by government, for government) comes from the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board:
Engaged employees have a heightened connection to work, the organization, the mission, or coworkers. Engaged employees find personal meaning and pride in their work. They believe that their organizations value them; in return, engaged employees are more likely to go above the minimum and expend “discretionary effort” to deliver superior performance.
In other words, it’s about both the head and the heart – an intellectual as well as emotional connection between the employee and her/his work. Engaged workers take their work personally.
Leaders don’t see the connection between engagement and performance. Some managers think employee engagement is about making their employees happy. And they think it’s not their job to create happy workplaces – it’s their job to deliver performance and results. Do we want our employees to be happy? Sure, as long as they get their work done.
The reality is that engagement really isn’t about employee happiness. In fact, employees in many high-engagement organizations aren’t always happy. Their jobs can be tough and stressful, and sometimes they have to work long hours. Take the military, a group of highly engaged “employees.” (Bias alert – my son-in-law is in the Army National Guard, currently serving his third tour in the Middle East, so I’m not objective.) Soldiers have tough, dangerous jobs, yet no one doubts their commitment and engagement. While they’re not always happy, I think they exemplify what engagement is a about.
Managers may also see engagement as something they should focus on when they have the time, but is not part of their core leadership responsibilities.
The challenge, then, is to connect the dots between improved employee engagement and organizational performance. This business case has been proven time and again in the private sector. Simply stated, high-engagement companies outperform low-engagement firms in every financial metric. That’s why legendary business leaders like Jack Welch have long focused their attention on measuring and improving engagement. Welch said that employee engagement is the most important barometer of organizational performance. According to Welch, who said he spent half of his time on people issues, “You need to take the measure of employee engagement at least once a year through anonymous surveys in which people feel completely safe to speak their minds.”
Unfortunately, in the public sector, we usually don’t have the same financial benchmarks as the private sector, so the engagement business case is less obvious. However, research on government organizations shows that high engagement is linked to positive outcomes such as achievement of strategic goals, retention, customer satisfaction, and attendance. Public sector leaders need to understand that improving engagement is a core part of their jobs and will help them deliver high performance.
We don’t know what our current level of engagement is. The axiom “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” applies to improving engagement. We can’t simply assume that engagement is high. For example, a county government HR director estimated that her county’s engagement score would be about 85 percent (that is, if the county had actually measured it). According to this director, a high proportion of workers want to do a good job and achieve excellence in their day-to-day responsibilities. Sounds good but, given that an 85 percent engagement level would be much higher than anything I’ve seen or read, it’s highly unlikely.
So, why guess? There is no substitute for an organization to measure the level of engagement of its employees, ideally through employee surveys. That’s the best way to directly find out how our employees feel, and what specific steps we need to take to improve engagement. And it’s just not that hard to measure engagement through surveys. You can pay an outside organization to develop and administer your survey. And that has some real advantages. Or, you can use a survey that is in the public domain and do it yourself at much lower cost, even if you’re a small jurisdiction.
We don’t know how to improve engagement. I recently came across a book that promises 180 ways to improve employee engagement. I don’t doubt this – there are probably even more than 180 – but good luck figuring out which of these will work in your agency or jurisdiction. This is my snarky way of saying that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to improve engagement. Rather, each organization needs to assess its level of engagement, figure out what it is doing well and what it needs to do better – and then act on the results. There are an estimated 90,000 government jurisdictions across the U.S. It’s hard to believe that any single approach can work across this wide variety of public sector organizations.
Engagement is seen as an HR project. As part of a research project we participated in through the Engagement Institute, a colleague and I interviewed the president of a university that had been recognized as one of the “Great Colleges to Work For.” When we contacted the university, we asked to speak to someone who could describe what the school had done to achieve this distinction. We expected to speak to someone in HR, probably the HR VP. Instead, the president of the university quickly agreed to speak with us himself. While that was noteworthy in itself, what he told us was enough more striking. First of all, while he mentioned his HR department as a key partner, he consistently described the university’s efforts not as an HR initiative but as a fundamental component of the school’s strategic direction.
Perhaps even more noteworthy, he never characterized the university’s approach as engagement. Instead, he used words like “communication,” “personal connection,” “strategy,” “authenticity,” “shared values” and so on. His success in generating a high level of engagement was therefore not a project – it was a key aspect of the cultural change the president is leading.
Here’s how a private sector attendee at the Engagement Institute meeting put it: “Engagement is not just a project at our company – we talk about it all the time.”
Of course, HR has a key role – as champion, facilitator, role model, and catalyst for cultural change. But efforts to improve engagement need to be part of the organization’s strategy, not driven solely by HR.
Improving engagement is not a shared responsibility. Even in organizations that “get it” about engagement, the focus is often on what leaders (from senior executives to front-line supervisors) can do to improve engagement. What action can these leaders take to move the needle of engagement in the right direction? While leadership is a critical factor, individual employees at all levels also have a responsibility to understand what their level of engagement is and why, and what they can do, in cooperation with their leaders, to boost engagement. This is perhaps the next frontier in employee engagement, and will be the major research project for the Engagement Institute in 2016.
This is not an easy time to be a public servant. Attacks on government place leaders and managers squarely in the middle of an intense and difficult managerial challenge, as they seek to motivate their employees and continue to deliver responsive services despite public criticism and shrinking resources.
One proven solution is to focus on improving employee engagement, which can be a powerful tool to improve individual and organizational performance – if it’s done strategically and authentically. As one public sector official put it, “If you don’t start with the workforce, how can you reach the public? 18,000 ambassadors are better than 18,000 assassins.”
But there is no magic bullet to improve engagement. Instead, what’s needed is a systematic assessment of employee engagement levels (ideally through a survey), a carefully constructed strategy to deal with the issues the results reveal, and then a focus on building engagement over time. Improving engagement – and therefore performance – is a marathon and not a sprint.