Employee engagement is a huge issue for businesses. Disengaged employees are unhappy employees, people just watching the clock and waiting for the end of the day. They’re less productive, more disruptive, and more likely to leave. Yet after decades of discussing this issue, the problem remains. Many businesses seem incapable of creating effective employee engagement.
Why? And what can we do about it?
Why Can’t We Create Engagement?
The cause of this problem is easy to understand but hard to face. Because creating real engagement means taking a fundamentally different approach to business and that’s not something most managers want.
Many managers take a short-sighted approach to engagement. They look for answers that:
- Provide quick results so they can show that they’re succeeding.
- Can be implemented now and then take no further work, so that the job’s done and you can get on with the job.
- Minimize disruption, so that the day job can continue unimpeded.
This makes sense in the short term, when you’re trying to serve customers. But it leads to a tick-box approach to improvement in which nothing fundamental changes. So-called engagement schemes are plastered over the top of existing corporate structures. Reward schemes offer prizes in place of job satisfaction. Suggestion boxes are started up so you can say you listen, then answered with justifications for the status quo, not substantial action.
Real engagement can’t be achieved that way. It takes ongoing work over a long time. It doesn’t provide instant results. It’s disruptive.
Because real engagement comes from empowering employees.
The secret to real engagement is giving employees more power over their work. Research shows that if they feel more powerful then they’ll be more satisfied and more productive.
Empowering employees means letting them shape the way they work, giving them the opportunity to design their working practices and take responsibility for their success. It doesn’t mean dropping standards, but it does mean accepting that the best results might not come from your favorite methods. Set the goals, set the parameters, and then let employees work out the detail. If employees can work in a way that fits their skills, personalities, and values, then they’ll work better. They’ll also feel more valued because you’ve shown that you trust them.
The businesses that do this best are ones with flatter organizational structures. Hierarchies feel good to the people at the top but flat structures create greater engagement. If people feel more equal to those in power then they feel more powerful, more responsible, and more invested in their work. A flat organizational structure isn’t possible for every business, but if you’re serious about engagement, look at how you can minimize hierarchies and their impact.
All of this means letting go of control and trusting employees to know their own jobs better than you do. That can be scary, but it can also be empowering for you. It frees you up to concentrate on your job, identifying strategic goals and coordinating other people’s efforts towards them.
Facing the Clashes
Introducing real engagement means facing conflicts of interest.
Different employees work in different ways. An approach that makes one employee feel valued and empowered can turn another one off entirely. Different people will want to work in different ways. Fortunately, the more you empower people, the less this will be a problem. Giving them the power to personalize how they work, while setting clear goals and boundaries, will allow most people to work in a way that suits them.
Older managers will struggle with this new way of working. Sadly, there’s just no getting away from that. So start by working out how you can personalize their experience, giving them a different sort of responsibility to replace the power over employees that they’re losing. And if they can’t let go, then maybe it’s time to let them go. A manager who can’t put his employees and their productivity first isn’t one you want in a leadership role.
Unleashing the Power of Your Business
Engaged employees are more creative, more productive, and more likely to stick around. By empowering them to take control over their own work, you can super charge your business and put the bad old days of disengagement in the past.