There is No Cookie Cutter Approach to Engagement
The need for greater productivity in the workplace has placed a critical importance on employee engagement in organizations, including ASTD.
Maylett, T., & Nielsen, J. (2012). There Is No Cookie-Cutter Approach To Engagement. T+D, April, 2012(1), 55-59.
Your organization wants employees who fit the culture of your workplace and are motivated, satisfied, and engaged. Or at the very least, employees who embody the values of your workplace and are productive and effective. HR and learning professionals make a fair attempt to measure employee satisfaction, but annual satisfaction surveys don't answer these real questions: How engaged are your employees in their jobs? Do they do more than show up? Do they bring their hands, minds, and hearts to the job?
Organizations of all sizes stand behind initiatives designed to improve employee engagement. The rise of engagement surveys, workshops, and publications attest to increased interest in this concept. Yet managers, HR and training professionals, consultants, and academics alike often pose the same question: What is employee engagement and does it really matter?
"Why We Hate HR," a 2005 Fast Company article, caused a stir with HR professionals and, by extension, learning professionals. The article details HR's difficulties in understanding and affecting business's bottom-line results. Reaffirmed by popular television shows, such as The Office, the need for improved ties between HR and the workplace learning functions and day-to-day business requirements becomes readily apparent.
For ASTD, that article became an ongoing quip between CEO Tony Bingham and Julie Nielsen, Senior Director for HR and Organizational Learning. Bingham, who left the tech world to eventually become ASTD's CEO, had many questions for Nielsen regarding what the article highlighted as the stereotypical, black-and-white thinking of HR.
Bingham challenged Nielsen to "create a profile of an engaged employee within ASTD. Since engagement has an impact on business success, we need to understand what truly engages our people." Nielsen soon realized this was a tall order. Over time, it was clear that Bingham's motives went far beyond simply understanding what motivated ASTD employees; it included wanting to demonstrate the role learning professionals play in engagement.
ASTD is a not-for-profit association dedicated to workplace learning and performance professionals. With 40,000 members worldwide, it is critical that ASTD understand the human factors necessary for achieving business results. Yet as ASTD set out to determine the most important elements of employee engagement in its own organization, and how they can be translated elsewhere, it confirmed what it already knew: No one-size-fits-all solution exists.
Why It Matters
The idea of engagement didn't simply spring from management's noble efforts to ensure employee happiness. It arose from the need for increased productivity—the ability to generate greater output from effort.
For decades, organizations have understood the relationship between engagement levels and HR metrics such as employee turnover and absenteeism. However, it recently became evident that clear ties can be drawn between employee engagement and business factors such as return-on-investment, increased customer service, quality, and overall profitability. Organizations learned that engaged employees were not only nice to have; they actually affect business in significant ways.
Peter Drucker had this point down a long time ago when he said, "[t]he most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution, whether business or nonbusiness, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity." As the value of organizations shifted from tangible assets (brick-and-mortar locations, equipment, and more) to intellectual assets (know-how, customer relationships, and intellectual property), what existed in people's minds and hearts became more valuable. Today, the ability to learn, change, and adapt increasingly becomes the greatest sustainable competitive advantage. A key factor in tapping this advantage is engagement.
From satisfaction to engagement
ASTD's initial steps to understand engagement were typical: conduct employee surveys, report the results, create actionable items to address the feedback, and then repeat. However, ASTD discovered what many other organizations also learn—it was really measuring employee satisfaction rather than engagement. In other words, were employees happy with their jobs and satisfied with their working environment? Annual surveys continued to show employee satisfaction was off the charts, but this fact had little traction within ASTD.
ASTD enlisted DecisionWise, specialists in employee assessment and organization change, to better understand employee engagement. DecisionWise has amassed a database of more than 9.2 million employee survey responses that comprise a diverse range of industries, job functions, and job levels. What DecisionWise discovered contradicted common thinking about engagement—there is no "cookie-cutter" approach. This meant that drivers of engagement vary greatly by industry—and also can vary greatly within similar industries. Plus, it was determined that engagement drivers often differ within organizations, too, shifting by function, group, and job level.
What do we want most?
As part of a five-year study, Decision-Wise asked numerous groups of managers across different organizations and industries what they wanted most from employees. Their answers included statements such as: "We want them to be productive and to do a great job," "We want them to feel respected and valued," and "We want passion and commitment." These answers, as diverse as they may seem, can be grouped logically into three broad categories that combine to define engagement: satisfaction, motivation, and effectiveness.
While each of these factors is important on its own, only when all three are present simultaneously does true engagement occur. The confusion comes when we use these words—motivation, satisfaction, effectiveness, and engagement—synonymously. When explored from a practical perspective, each of these terms is actually a distinct and unique concept, and all three are required components of engagement.
The engagement equation
The following scenarios describe differing levels of engagement.
- Scenario One: Sara, an assembly line employee, describes herself as "satisfied" with her job. She's happy with her pay (at least it's better than most jobs). She starts at 7 a.m. and finishes in time to pick up her child from school. The job meets her needs, but she's not engaged.
- Scenario Two: Sara's co-worker, Tonya, enjoys coming to work because she recently has been given the responsibility to ensure that the assembly line produces at record capacity. She's motivated by this challenge and has been able to meet, and often exceed, her effectiveness targets. Yet her manager rarely recognizes her accomplishments, and her pay does not reflect her contributions. In fact, she's so dissatisfied with her pay and lack of recognition that she's began interviewing for other jobs.
- Scenario Three: Kristin works upstairs in the main office and is a friend to both Sara and Tonya. She is a programmer new to the company. Lack of motivation is certainly not an issue because Kristin is excited to come to work and use the skills she recently learned in college. She's very satisfied with her job. She feels fortunate to land such a good job straight out of school. Yet, she encounters the same problem every day. Her office computer cannot run the applications required to do her job effectively. Kristin's boss told her of this problem when she started, and promises were made to resolve it. Yet, the problem remains and Kristin feels she wastes half her day dealing with this situation. She is ineffective.
While each of these women possesses two of our factors, a critical third is missing that prevents engagement. As each one of the elements feeds on the others, the level of contribution at work will suffer, and could eventually deteriorate to the point of losing commitment. It also is possible that these employees could become actively disengaged.
As described in the preceding scenarios, employees are engaged when they are simultaneously satisfied, motivated, and effective. Employees are personally engaged when their jobs attract and hold their attention, and they are deeply involved in their work. But what is engagement's impact on the workplace itself?
Organizations with truly engaged employees have higher retention, productivity, customer satisfaction, innovation rates, and quality. They also require less training time, experience fewer illnesses, and have fewer accidents. Simply put, engaged employees deliver more than average employees—and cost less.
Different strokes for different folks
What may engage one employee may not engage another. Thus, no single approach exists. Consider what may engage a top sales representative versus a registered nurse. At the risk of over-generalizing, it could be said that sales representatives are more likely to be engaged by aggressive compensation and autonomy, while nurses perceive more value in having the right tools and equipment and being treated with dignity and respect.
Realizing the complexity behind the concept, is it possible to identify key drivers that facilitate engagement? To find out, DecisionWise conducted a research study involving nearly 800 employees representing different industries, job functions, professions, and cultural backgrounds.
During a three-month period, DecisionWise met with employees and provided them with a set of cards. Each card described specific components of job satisfaction, motivation, and effectiveness. The cards also covered such topics as competitive compensation, co-worker relationships, and clear goals and directions.
Researchers asked each individual or team to sort the cards in the order of importance to their engagement at work. The question posed as the cards were sorted was simple: Tell us what makes you want to do, and what makes you able to do, your best at work.
The findings weren't surprising; there's a general set of core dimensions that define engagement for the majority of people studied. This finding offered support to the claim of identifying "the key drivers of engagement." However, the study showed that these factors were not given the same priority in terms of importance. While within similar professions there was some consistency (they tended to identify similar engagement dimensions as the most critical), there was simply no cookie-cutter approach to engagement.
The role of the organization and the manager
If drivers of engagement vary, what can be done to keep employees engaged? Although organizations can play a role in satisfaction by changing a variety of practices, policies, and compensation factors, as well as equip and train employees differently to ensure effectiveness, motivation stands out as the loose variable. Motivation is personal. It varies from individual to individual, and cannot be dictated for someone else.
ASTD realized this point was critical in understanding the organization's role in engagement, which may be limited to three actions. First, it can create a culture where people can choose to be engaged. Second, it can hire the type of people who engage in that culture. Finally, it can "get out of the way" to allow people to choose to be engaged.
Engagement at ASTD
ASTD initially approached engagement the way most organizations do, by looking at it as a typical HR function—an activity—hoping to drive increased organizational effectiveness. However, in understanding the three factors of engagement, ASTD also examined its core HR and learning processes to create a new model for success.
ASTD first examined its environment and culture. For ASTD, a key to understanding engagement was gaining clarity about the prevalent culture in the organization, and what type of individuals would flourish in such an environment. That understanding changed ASTD's new-hire philosophy, which in turn changed how it develops and retains people. (View ASTD's recrutiment video.) It also caused a rethinking of (and the shrinking of) organizational values to make them memorable and usable.
The organization noted that ASTD's values of people, communication, teamwork, and accountability were essential to employee success, and that reflecting these values was not optional. Cases involving employees not reflecting these values get quickly addressed.
When it came to selection, ASTD identified a phrase, "Low ego, high EQ," which became the starting point for interviews, even before getting to job-specific qualifications. ASTD job applicants now leave interviews understanding its culture (for better or for worse). In fact, some may decide beforehand that ASTD may not be the right fit.
The final insight came from the role learning and development played in employee engagement. At ASTD, development opportunities might look traditional (custom onsite programs, public offsite programs, coaching, and so on), or might take a different slant. Frequently, development comes in the form of stretching to take on new opportunities, which works well in organizations, such as ASTD, that value people willing to reach for results.
Despite ASTD's role in the industry, its employees were still likely to see training as something "offsite that you send me to." But the best development that engages employees is in opportunity—the opportunity to take something new and own it or grow it.
Ensuring that employees had the opportunities to grow remains today, as in the past, a critical component of engagement. The emphasis on engagement at ASTD turned into a cycle that continually is being used and improved.
In this arena, ASTD aims to "walk the talk," and its engagement survey results attest to this fact. According to Bingham, "Whether an advantage or disadvantage, eyes are on ASTD to practice what we preach. We must create an environment where employees can choose to be engaged, hire people who can engage in that culture, and then make sure we don't do anything to take away from their natural levels of engagement. This has become clear in our culture, our hiring practices, and the way we develop our team. It works."
Engagement leads to success
Employee engagement can be simply defined as a voluntary dedication and commitment to doing the very best work. Engagement goes beyond traditional measures of employee satisfaction to include concepts of motivation and effectiveness. Different people are engaged by different factors, so the actual dimensions of engagement vary.
Engagement is more than ensuring employees are motivated, and is no longer just HR jargon. It is now as real as the results of the latest profit and loss statement.
In organizations today, the difference between engaged employees and disengaged employees often means the difference between success and failure. Now, HR and learning professionals, that is where our professions and business results meet.