In Conversation with Dr Jim Harter at Gallup: Decoding the Employee Engagement Paradox

December 16, 201610:47 am1651 views

The need for employee engagement has been stressed upon by companies at large, looking at various ways to engage key talent and retain them. However, the key lies in sustaining continued interests of employees to make them feel valuable contributors towards the company’s progression goals.

In an exclusive interview with Dr. Jim Harter, Chief Scientist, Workplace Management and Well-Being, Gallup, we decode the existing paradoxes about employee engagement, to help understand and bridge the gap between what employers expect and what employees can deliver. Setting right expectations at the onset with clear direct communication between employer-employees across all touch points hold keys to success. Know more…

  • How can organisations bridge the gap between what employees expect and what employers can offer?

The demands on managers have increased, with changes in technology, the economy, remote working, matrixed organizations and a new generation of workers, who expect to have high-quality managers who are more akin to “coaches” than “bosses”.

This new breed of workers, who will soon become the majority of the workforce want ongoing conversations with their supervisors rather than once-per-year performance reviews. They want to see and feel a purpose in their work rather than only coming to their jobs for a pay check.

They want to develop and envision their future rather than simply remaining satisfied at their jobs, thanks to “perks” and “fun” activities.  They want to develop personally and professionally through focusing on their strengths.  For many, their work is blended into their lives and is more than just a job.

Dr. Jim Harter, Chief Scientist, Workplace Management and Well-Being, Gallup

Dr. Jim Harter, Chief Scientist, Workplace Management and Well-Being, Gallup

It is interesting that many of the core requirements for great managing are unchanged from five years ago– defining clear and organisationally aligned outcomes, individualised strength-based development, accountability, career growth opportunities. Such as some elements need more intentionality than others.

For example, in a highly matrixed environment, people are often more collaborative, although clarification of expectations is less frequent.  In a remote working situation, autonomy is improved but collaboration needs more intentionality.

With technology comes potential for greater connectedness, a double-edged sword that can both increase flexibility and blend work into non-work time.  Great managers figure out these subtleties and manage  the person and the situation to achieve better outcomes. While the situations for managers are changing, the principles great managers follow are timeless.

  • What are the factors that determine employee engagement and how can HR managers know when an employee is highly engaged in the business or not?

In short, organisations with higher percentage of engaged employees are more efficient in getting done what they want to get done.  Engaged employees are those that are highly involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace.  When organizations get “engagement” right, that is, when it is defined and acted on in the right way, they simultaneously improve company performance and the overall lives of their employees.

Only 13% of workers around the world, and approximately one-third of U.S. workers, are engaged in their work and workplace.  Many organisations have more than five times the global percentage of engaged workers and more than double the U.S. figure.

For these organisations, this didn’t happen by accident.  They have intentionally focused their strategy, communication systems, accountability and development around concepts that align with performance and key elements of engagement (there are 12, ranging from clarity of expectations to individual development, team cohesion, and career growth).

Publicly traded organisations that achieve high levels of engagement substantially surpass their peers in Earnings Per Share (EPS).  This is because they have more teams that are highly engaged and those who achieve an average of 21% higher profit in comparison to the less engaged teams.

The profit advantage comes from more highly engaged and loyal customers, lower employee turnover, higher productivity, and fewer accidents, among other outcomes.  Engaged employees also report better health and higher overall well-being in comparison to those who are not engaged, or actively disengaged.

  • How can HR managers work towards making employees feel valuable, while fostering a workplace culture that allows for coexisting priorities, wherein opinions of each team member is welcome?

Gallup’s research shows that through their natural wiring, their own engagement, and how they coach the people they manage, managers account for at least 70% of team engagement.

When setting expectations, they define the right outcomes first, and don’t expect everyone to reach the same outcomes in the same way. When motivating, they focus on individual strengths and manage around the weaknesses.

While everyone can gain experiences and grow, people grow the most in the context of who they are, not trying to be someone they aren’t.  In developing people, the best managers continuously find the right fit for each person.  They help each person do more of what that person is naturally wired to do.

  • What are the quintessential elements in an organisation culture that attracts talented employees and makes them stay with the company and grow?

Based on recent Gallup exit interview data, the top reason people change jobs is “career growth opportunities.”  Unfortunately, more than 90% of workers who change jobs change companies.

Organisations are failing to develop effective succession planning that makes it clear to young workers what their future can be in their organisation.   It doesn’t have to be this way.  This can happen through strengths-based management, effective coaching and development of realistic succession programs within each role.

  • What is the right approach to monitor and measure employee engagement?

First, don’t think about employee engagement as an annual survey or event.  It is not separate from effective performance management.  Rather, the key engagement elements are central to effective performance development should be part of continuous, ongoing, conversations between managers (coaches) and employees.

Engagement is more about a “process” than an “event”.  It should be measured periodically, but more importantly, the engagement elements should be integral to an organisation’s strategy, communication, managerial expectations and accountability, and ongoing managerial development programs.

  • What do you see typically are the roadblocks to employee engagement globally and in specific to Asia Pacific? Why are companies globally experiencing engagement crisis today?

There are many roadblocks that prevent engagement from happening at the frequency that it should and most of these are shared, in various ways, across the globe.  Many organisations treat engagement as an annual survey, much like the traditional employee satisfaction survey rather than a set of workplace conditions that are part of manager job expectations.

Few organisations have the right requirements for becoming a manager and do not select managers based on their natural ability to manage others. Most managers get into the role of a manager based on either tenure in the organisation or success in a prior job that is unrelated to the ability to manage others.

Few organisations have implemented effective strengths-based managerial training to teach managers how to leverage their natural talents and those of their employees to achieve efficient team performance.  But, the good news is that this is all achievable. At a foundational level, many organisations haven’t yet aligned critical engagement elements with their over-arching strategy.

See: How Does Workplace Satisfaction Help Boost Employee Engagement?

  • Highlight some of the best practices organisations should adopt or follow to improve employee engagement and enhance performance output.

Business units that utilise strengths-focused feedback system realise 9-15% higher employee engagement. Employees who strongly agree that their manager focuses on their strengths or positive characteristics have more than double the odds of being engaged in comparison to the average of all employees.

A strengths-based approach that defines the individual differences of each person and seeks to leverage those differences provides a more efficient path to engaging employees – essentially short-cut to engagement.

This is because the key engagement elements are all, in part, dependent on a manager’s ability to individualise his or her approach to each employee: setting clear expectations, getting the right materials and equipment, positioning the individual to do what they do best, providing the right recognition, and caring about and developing them.

  • What are the most powerful and impactful employee engagement drivers? Do you think goal cascading of tying employee goals with organisational goals helps?

Effective engagement practices are essentially effective performance management practices.  They are not separate programs or activities. They are integral to effective development and evaluation.  Cascading of goals, while well intended, often fails when it assumes that goals are handed down from the top of the organisation to the front-line.

Goals of course need to be aligned.  But they also need to be owned by the people doing the work. Effective performance management means managers (coaches or team leads) work with employees to set challenging goals that are aligned with organizational objective.But they also take into consideration each person’s strengths, aspirations, and input from the interaction they have with their work, teammates, and customers.  Goals should be locally owned but aligned with organisational objectives.  That is the role of the effective “coach”.

  • How is engagement generally perceived by managers and senior directors of companies?

It really depends on how it is defined and utilised within an organization.  If it makes doing work more efficient, if it is perceived very favourably.  If it is a separate activity that doesn’t feel aligned with the work, the manager or leader is attempting to get done, then it is a nuisance.  Effective engagement practices bring insight into everyday management.

  • What changes do you suggest for businesses to overcome barriers to employee engagement and be more optimistic in their outlook for the tech-savvy future?

Don’t overlook human nature.  Effective engagement practices are rooted in human nature.Most people come to work wanting to make a difference.  They naturally want to have an important role, have the materials and equipment they need to do their work, do what they do best, get recognised for good work, develop, and be part of a successful team.

These needs don’t go away as technology changesbut how they are addressed can be different with changes in technology.  Great managing is the conduit.  Put two systems in place:  long-term systems that hire managers with the ability to motivate others, and shorter-term systems that teach managers the skills they need to leverage their own and their employees’ strengths.

  • How are your organisational goals communicated to the team and ingrained as a part of the agile workplace culture?

For many organisations, the modern workplace changes quickly based on the needs of customers.  Teams need to adjust priorities continuously rather than annually.  This means team leaders need to develop habits and rituals that have ongoing conversations ranging from “check-ins”, to “development coaching”, to more “progress reviews”.  Goals are discussed daily or weekly.

  • Do employee engagement levels differ by gender? Should HR managers take gender-based approaches while devising and implementing employee engagement strategies?

On an average, women tend to be a little more engaged than men.  But the variance within genders is far greater than the differences between genders and the elements that engage both genders are very similar.  The key is in the individualised attention and flexibility to design workplaces to meet the needs and life demands of a wide range of employee situations.

All the things mentioned above (building a workplace of outstanding managers, coaches, or team leaders) improve the probability that individual needs will be met, regardless of gender or other characteristics.  Certainly, policies such as flex time and other benefits can be additive to the extent they are realistic for an organization.

Also read: Employee Engagement: 9 Rules for HR Managers

Content rights: This exclusive interview coverage and content is produced by HR in ASIAAny redistribution or reproduction of part or all of the contents in this interview is prohibited. You may not, except with our express written permission, distribute or commercially exploit the content. 

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