In the United States, levels of employee engagement are at an all-time high. This is great news for employers. After years of statistics telling us where we were going wrong, it looks like our policies promoting engagement have started to bear fruit. This article seeks to analyse this rise in engagement so that Australian executives can draw implications about what works and what does not.
Engagement. It’s a word that can trigger a whole range of emotions for executives. From disappointment to fear to embarrassment, we have all had a negative experience when it comes to improving employee engagement across our organisation. More often than not, our optimistic policies get scrunched up and thrown into the bin after feedback tells us that our plans have not had their intended effect.
However, a recent survey from Gallup suggests that we have reason for renewed hope.
At the start of the millennium, only 26% of employees, America wide, were engaged. Frighteningly, 18% were actively disengaged. By 2010, these numbers had improved – but only slightly. Around 29% were engaged, while active disengagement increased to 19%. Within Australian organisations, the statistics were very similar.
In the last decade, however, these numbers have steadily changed. I’m happy to report that, according to Gallup, employee engagement is up to 35% and active disengagement is down to 13%. These figures might seem small in the broader scheme of things but they represent so much more when you consider the backdrop of stagnancy that has shrouded employee engagement. To executives and other leaders worldwide, they indicate that our polices are finally working.
Perseverance, commitment and resilience have been rewarded with vindication. We know that we are on the right path towards a workplace that is better engaged.
Australian executives need to realise, however, that we are far from the end of the road. 35% engagement should be a marker of progress and a cause for celebration but not a reason to rest on our laurels.
We need to separate the polices that worked from those that didn’t to ensure we continue to build. Otherwise, we risk letting our progress fall to the wayside. Gallup has drawn our attention to some important insights from which we can extrapolate.
Markers of Engaged Organisations
Firstly, Gallup’s research suggests the role of high-ranking executives is vital in ensuring an organisation’s efforts at promoting engagement actually have an effect at every level of the organisation. A lot can get lost in translation when it comes to implementing the ideas you conceive in boardrooms. Executives need to do more than establish policies for change. As Gallup notes, “they [must] live it.” Practice what you preach. Not only will your employees and team members benefit from your enthusiasm and focus, you might reach a higher level of engagement yourself.
Secondly, Gallup has found that a key cultural change that can lead to engagement is “moving from a culture of ‘boss’ to ‘coach’.” Power imbalances can disengage employees. That’s because the relationship between employee and leader can displace the work as the employee’s focus on a day-to-day basis. If you’re worried about what your boss thinks of you, that can draw your attention away from what is on your desk. For the minority, the power dynamic can encourage them to work hard; for most, it can induce anxiety which detracts from their overall performance. Coaches have a different aura. They are about fostering development, the implication being that they work with and alongside their colleagues rather than on top of. Naturally, this type of relationship invites employees to engage with their work to try and elevate to the next level. They want to be the best version of themselves because that is what you, their coach, wants to see. Let’s do away with cultures of fear and intimidation in favour of those which foster comradery and personal growth.
Forbes also draws our attention to a third, obvious, way in which levels of engagement can be improved by executives. That is through making sure people have the right resources and skills at their disposal to do their jobs. When people feel that they are unable to work to their highest capacity, then they will not even try. We often assume that once we have good people in a role, they will perform well. But, to use a sporting analogy, you cannot put a goalkeeper in the scorer’s position and expect them to reach their potential. Your employees must feel confident and comfortable in order to engage with their work.
The most important thing to remember in all this is that, finally, we are on the right path. Steady gains have added up to something significant and we all deserve a pat on the back for that. More importantly though, we need to learn from our success. We’ve made so many mistakes in the past when it comes to engagement; this is our chance to build what we’ve got into something bigger.
Evaluate what works and what doesn’t. Grow into a more engaged organisation. This time next year, we want to see even better numbers.