Numerous studies highlight the irrefutable link between customer experience and employee engagement. So what drives an engaged workforce?
We also unearthed the fact that companies with above average CX in their industry benefit from a workforce where 75% of their employees are highly or moderately engaged, compared to only 47% of employees at other companies.
Whilst these stats were revealing, they were by no means shedding light on a new topic. Back in 1998, Anthony J. Rucci, Steven P. Kirn and Richard T. Quinn wrote in Harvard Business Review about the importance of employee engagement at Sears; and the article is commonly acknowledged as the “benchmark evidence for setting out the links between engaged employees, increased levels of customer service and higher profits”.
So, with twenty years of employee engagement awareness, why is it that businesses are continuing to struggle to piece together systems of engagement? Why is it that, in July 2017, just 41% of UK employees feel aligned with their organisations’ goals, and 36% of employees are likely to leave their jobs within one year because they're unengaged?
Engagement specialists, Engage for Success’s mantra is that there’s “no magic pill for engagement”, because every company is different. But the caveat to this epithet is a fact that too often in business, the drivers of engagement are neglected.
In recent years, for instance, one key element according to Paul Beesley, a director and senior consultant at Beyond Theory, has been the kickback from the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession, which led many businesses to abandon engagement programmes in favour of cost-saving exercises.
“Recession and the credit crunch didn’t help – companies were focused on survival, but it is at this time that you need engagement most,” he says.
“Statistics have shown that companies with high level of engagement see their levels actually increase during tough times. It’s that idea of pulling together when things are difficult. Since the recovery through the last ten years, the companies that weren’t good at engagement are seeing their employees leave, because they weren’t engaged during the tough times.”
It’s an all too familiar cycle. And the simple fact is that, with Brexit on the horizon and a return to potentially hard times in the UK, many businesses have yet to fully grasp just what the drivers for actively engaging employees actually are.
Statistics have shown that companies with high level of engagement see their levels actually increase during tough times.
In this respect, analysis conducted by The Conference Board identified 26 common drivers of engagement amongst 12 leading engagement research companies, 8 of which were common to all:
- Trust and integrity. How well do managers communicate and ‘walk the talk‘?
- Nature of the job. Is it mentally stimulating day-to-day?
- Line of sight between employee performance and company performance. Do employees understand how their work contributes to the company’s performance?
- Career growth opportunities. Are there opportunities for growth within the business?
- Pride about the company. How much self-esteem do the staff feel by being associated with their business?
- Coworkers/team members. How much influence do they exert on the employee’s level of engagement?
- Employee development. Is the company making an effort to develop the employee’s skills?
- Relationship with one’s manager. Does the employee value relationships with managers, and is there trust and credibility between the levels?
Within these drivers, the ‘Engaging for Success’ report proposes four key drivers to employee engagement: Strategic Narrative (leadership), Engaging Leaders, Employee Voice and Integrity; and it is these drivers that businesses must focus their attention if they are to become a benchmark for success.
“Leaders need to be able to clearly articulate the story of the organisation, and employees need to see and feel how they fit into and contribute to that,” says Cathy Brown, former executive director of Engage For Success.
“Managers need to manage well, treating people as individuals. Employees need to have a voice, and trust that they are heard and acknowledged. And the organisation has to have integrity, living its values at every level.”
1. Leadership. Leaders need to be visible and in touch with their front line staff.
While there is a little disparity between analysis into engagement drivers, the influence of leadership is widely agreed on.
Mark Gregory, founder of Unleash & Engage, believes employee engagement lives and dies with quality of leadership, not only in terms of how leaders foster engaged employees, but how their own level of engagement is broadcast to wider groups.
“Not many of us have a relationship with the main board of our organisation, or the CEO, or the big influencers of the business. Unless you work in a small organisation. So, the only relationship we formulate with our organisation is with our direct boss, our peers and our team.
“There are two levels to this – fundamentally, the leader has to be able to engage the people they’re leading, and that engagement has to have four sub-components: Trust, clarity of purpose, alignment of systems (removal of bureaucracy) and unleashing talent.
“But then there’s a second component to leadership: as a leader, it is really difficult for me to engage if I am not engaged myself. Anything on the inside eventually manifests itself on the outside.
“What organisations do often is create leaders that aren’t engaged. We talk about middle management – where stuff just doesn’t get through. That’s often a layer that’s disengaged, because it’s a leadership layer that many businesses often assume doesn’t require engagement. What generally happens is that organisations have employees that will go the extra mile, but often their leaders wont. Engaging the leaders is really an important part of this whole piece.”
Paul Beesley adds that this often boils down to how leaders are able to project the wider company vision into their employees’ every-day working practice:
“A leader who understands employee engagement will stay true to where the company has come from, where it is now, where it is going. They will then articulate that vision to employees effectively.
“There’s the story about Kennedy visiting Cape Canaveral during the US space programme in the 1960s, and talking to a guy sweeping the launchpad and asking him what his role was, and getting the response “I’m putting man on the moon”. It’s that ‘bricklayer building a cathedral’ mentality that leaders have to enstill in their employees. People need to understand the connection between what they’re doing and the bigger picture.”
It’s the ‘bricklayer building a cathedral’ mentality that leaders have to enstill in their employees.
2. Engaging line managers. Studies show that most of the variation in engagement levels is down to the line manager.
Whilst engagement may start at the top of an organisation, Gregory’s point about leaders being engaged is perhaps most pertinent.
In a recent Bain & Company report, ‘Who's responsible for employee engagement?’ a survey of 200,000 employees across 40 companies in 60 countries found that in the majority of businesses, the Employee Net Promoter Score (an indicator for employee engagement) dropped significantly with each organisational layer farther from the CEO.
This scale of disillusion, the research states, is often driven by an abandonment of five key principles:
- Line supervisors leading engagement with their employees.
- Supervisors having the right preparation to hold candid dialogues with teams.
- Teams rallying round the customer.
- Engagement tactics being tailored for different employee segments.
- Engagement being about dialogue, rather than metrics.
Paul Beesley says this reverts back to leaders ensuring each organisational layer is, “given the support they need to do the job they’ve been asked to do. That’s treating people well, looking after them, supporting them, directing them.
“A lot of organisations don’t really give people direction. They ask them to do something but don’t show them what a good job looks like. That accounts for leaders too. Directing, delegating, coaching – these are all key components that need to filter through the organisation to ensure each layer is engaged.”
3. Employee voice. An empowered employee will have a voice. Where employee views are sought out they should be listened to and visibly acted upon.
'Engaging for Success' suggests it’s the voice of the employees that signifies the true level of engagement inside an organisation, and in this respect, a business must decide what mechanisms it has in place in order to provide the right platform for employees to be heard.
In most instances, this can be a multichannel process involving technology and social media alongside coaching, one-to-ones, group meetings, newsletters and of course, simply talking to people.
Gregory calls it the employee ‘emotional backpack’, and says it is a case of ensuring that a business provides the right channels to ensure employee backpacks don’t get weighed down over time:
“We all have an emotional backpack. The weight of that backpack can change over time, and it’s up to leaders to keep those backpacks as light as possible, so people can have a spring in their steps.
“What’s the percentage of time that a leader spends with their people, and interacting with them? If you think about leadership, to create trust, clarity, etc. you need to know each other. Trust is based on character and competence. How can you know someone is trustworthy unless you’ve assessed their character?
“Voicing an opinion is about using those mechanisms to create the right avenues for people to be heard, listened to and then to see that what they’ve been saying has had an influence in a positive way.”
We all have an emotional backpack. The weight of that backpack can change over time, and it’s up to leaders to keep those backpacks as light as possible,
4. Integrity. Behaviour throughout the organisation is consistent with the stated values, leading to employee trust and a sense of integrity. The larger the gap between the two, the more distrust exists.
“Engaged organisations have strong and authentic values, with clear evidence of trust and fairness based on mutual respect, where two way promises and commitments – between employers and staff – are understood, and are fulfilled," says the Engaging for Success report.
It’s commonly accepted that archetypal good organisation will have a strong set of values, but how well do they abide by them? This, says Paul Beesley, defines a company’s level of integrity.
“What are the values of the organisation, and how do we know that people are living them? There’s lots of examples – big banks, for instance, having their values pinned to branch walls. But what does that ultimately mean? Values have to be led and managed. Appraisal systems help give a balanced approach towards tasks, value and behaviour.”
How well a company lives its values creates what Mark Gregory calls the ‘say/do gap’, which companies should aim to keep as narrow as possible.
“Every organisation has this say/do gap, because it’s impossible to be perfect. But it’s about how small you can keep this gap.
“For example – if one of your values is ‘honesty’ and employees find out their senior execs have been telling lies about something significant over the years, then I’d say you have a massive say/do gap.
“In the absence of facts, people create fantasy. And more than often this is a negative thing, rather than positive. It’s all about perceptions. This is where you refer back to opinions, because if you’re good at gathering opinion you’re able to reinforce your values, but if you’re not then this is much harder to do.”
Every organisation has a say/do gap, because it’s impossible to be perfect. But it’s about how small you can keep this gap.
LOVE your job?
These four key drivers of employee engagement have been redefined by Mark Gregory as Leadership, Opinion, Values and Environment, or to abbreviate LOVE. And it is this four-letter word that Gregory believes should push businesses forward in their pursuit of an engaged workforce:
“You want people to say is ‘I love my job, I love it here, I love this company. In simple language, that’s what you want your employees to be saying. In Net Promoter terms, this means your employees are giving you a 9 or 10. That means you have to be world-class.
“A lot of companies use the terms ‘world-class’ or ‘world-leader’ in their vision statements or their taglines, but what does that mean? If you look at research, this means getting down into the minutiae of what is actually happening at a really granular level.”
And this means putting the drivers of engagement into action, which in turn requires an understanding who has ownership of employee engagement; a subject we will be examining in the next chapter of this series.
Chris is Editor of MyCustomer. He is a practiced editor, having worked as a copywriter for creative agency, Stranger Collective from 2009 to 2011 and subsequently as a journalist covering technology, marketing and customer service from 2011-2014 as editor of Business Cloud News. He joined MyCustomer in 2014.