Why Is Employee Engagement Important?

There are lots of surveys and statistics available that demonstrate the importance of employee engagement. While most address the link between engagement and organizational outcomes, there is another link of equal importance – employee engagement and employee happiness with work. The stressful environment people are dealing with today on a routine basis is causing a lot of workforce unhappiness which is a critical disengagement factor. 

In an era of continuous disruption and uncertainty, your organizational leaders are called upon to maintain the organizational culture, help team members stay focused and positive, and support employee well-being. It's not as difficult as it sounds at first. First, understand what employee engagement is all about and why it's so important. Then learn and leverage the drivers of engagement that are efficient leadership approaches to helping employees and the organization succeed. The desired organizational outcomes will naturally flow from achieving a high level of an engaged workforce.

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What is Employee Engagement Really All About?

Business consultants are always trying to pin down a definition of employee engagement. Here are four definitions:

  • A Better Leader says employee engagement is: "the positive or negative ways employees feel about work and their level of commitment and includes emotional and intellectual aspects of what an employee is thinking and feeling in terms of their work, their sense of ownership, the trust they place in leadership."
  • Gallup defines engaged employees as "those who are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace."
  • PriceWaterhouseCoopers says that engagement is "the extent to which employees are motivated to contribute." 
  • Engage for Success defines employee engagement as a "workplace approach resulting in the right conditions for all members of an organization to give of their best each day, committed to their organization's goals and values, motivated to contribute to organizational success, with an enhanced sense of their own well-being."

Nowhere does it say that employees must get warm fuzzies about themselves, but they do say they should feel great about the work they do. Employee engagement is about commitment, connection, and motivation, and when those three aspects exist, the sense of belonging and work satisfaction will naturally form. 

Engagement is experienced on a spectrum. Gallup identified three engagement categories. The engaged employees work with passion, drive innovation and move the company forward. Employees who are not engaged in a significant way have checked out on the job and don't feel valued. They simply show up for work and sleepwalk through the day. The actively disengaged employees are noticeably unhappy and work to undermine others.

What Employee Engagement is Not About

Knowing what constitutes employee engagement is essential, but so is knowing what it does not. Sometimes management views employee engagement as a process for making people feel good. Think about that for a minute. People could feel good about getting work done while missing a deadline. An employee might feel good about making it to work on time even though the person didn't really want to come to work. Employees may complete projects but have no strong sense of how their work connects to the company's purpose. 

These employees are not looking to the future. They are feeling good but only thinking about the day-to-day. These are the employees who usually end up leaving the organization, contributing to high turnover rates. Sometimes they stay in their positions but only do the minimum required. Many are likely people who could be great employees if they were engaged in a meaningful way. 

Employee engagement is not about manipulating employee's emotions, pretending concern for employee well-being, promising rewards for meeting deadlines, or declaring consequences for non-compliance. Genuine engagement means people find purpose and meaning in their work, which drives them to do their best.

Benefits of Employee Engagement

Understanding the benefits of employee engagement answers the question: Why is engagement important? There are many benefits, proven through numerous research and surveys.

  • Lowers turnover 
  • Reduces absenteeism
  • Increases productivity
  • Increases customer satisfaction
  • Improves the bottom line
  • Strengthens employee inclusion and belonging 
  • Strengthens employee voice
  • Supports a positive company culture

Why is engagement important? It's important because engaged employees feel valued and believe their work is meaningful. They look forward to coming to work, doing their best, seeing personal success while also contributing to organizational success, and helping others succeed. This is how a collaborative, innovative culture is developed and maintained – through employee engagement.

What Leaders Need to Know About Developing Employee Engagement

The ADP Research Institute surveyed more than 19,000 employees worldwide to measure engagement and identify the work conditions most like to attract and retain workers. The Engagement Pulse survey measured the conditions of employee engagement created by organizational leaders. The four conditions determining the level of engagement were:

  • Purpose – Do employees understand what is expected of them and how their work benefits the organization, coworkers, customers, etc.?
  • Excellence – Do employees understand what is valued at work, feel surrounded by people who share values, and have opportunities to use strengths?
  • Support – Do employees have a sense of self-worth and the support and recognition of others at work?
  • Future – Are employees confident in the organization's future and that they will get opportunities to be challenged and grow in one's job?

You can't force engagement in the workforce. People choose their engagement level. Engagement is developed through effective servant leadership and becomes ingrained in your organization. That's what they mean by a culture of engagement. Engagement becomes a core value and permeates everything from the level of commitment and motivation in each employee to employee relations with management. 

Your leaders can close the employee engagement gap in each employee, though, no matter how wide it is right now.

The Ten Building Blocks of Employee Engagement

Below are ten building blocks of employee engagement, the leadership skills for developing and maintaining positive employee relations. These ten building blocks support the type of leadership needed in the Proactive Era. They are comprised of strategies directly involving job responsibility and those that are psychological in nature:

  1. Meaningful Work

    Surveys have shown that more than 9 out of 10 employees would give up a percentage of lifetime earnings in exchange for more meaningful work. One study on the Conference of Women found that 80 percent of the people responding would choose a manager or supervisor who honestly cared about them finding meaning and success over a 20 percent pay raise. That's how important it is to provide challenging and meaningful work to fully engage employees.
  2. Feedback

    Feedback is a powerful resource for engaging workers. It can be feedback from leaders, coworkers, and even customers or clients. But what is feedback

    First, it's two-way. It's not a manager telling employees what to do or believe. The highest quality feedback consists of thoughtful conversations that are productive, build trust and promote lasting change: the employee and the leader gain from the communication. Your leaders can master completing performance reviews, but they know how to ask what Joe Hirsch calls "hero questions," which focuses on employee success stories. For example, "What difference did working on this project make in your work and the work of team members? Quality feedback encourages and guides on building strengths, and is one of the most fundamental of the building blocks of employee engagement. 

    Even if your leaders ask and receive feedback mostly via digital communication, virtual meetings, an internet-based website, or an intranet, it's important to include personal conversations when possible or the elements of thoughtful conversations if not.
  3. Collaboration

    There's that word again – collaboration. The real importance of collaboration goes deeper than completing work as a team. Collaboration builds trust, promotes creativity and innovation, leads to a sharing of new perspectives, and places people on a path to meeting a common goal. A Gallup study found that only a third of U.S. employees agree their company openly shares information, ideas, and knowledge. That's not how you develop a collaborative workplace. Just think about the lost ideas, knowledge not expanding because people aren't adequately sharing information, productivity slowed, and lost employee engagement opportunities. 

    If you're looking to increase collaboration, consider trying out new software or a free app to increase productivity and engagement. There are hundreds of options for businesses to connect their workforce and make collaboration easier, faster, and more effective.
  4. Involvement

    People, especially millennials and Gen Z, have an aversion to autocratic leadership. These employees value work autonomy and autonomy can mean different things in different organizations. The one thing it does mean in every organization is empowerment which includes things like delegating authority and decision-making, asking for input, and sharing information.
    Involving employees in workflows, the pace of work, scheduling, and goal setting can have profound impacts. Involvement is on a continuum, from empowerment in which the employee can make decisions within mutually agreed upon boundaries to shared leadership where the employee and leader are jointly responsible. Shared leadership is a leadership style for the times in that employees share a sense of responsibility and purpose in a non-hierarchal organizational structure.
  5. Capability

    There is a difference between ability and capability. Employee ability refers to the person's already developed skills, power, and means. Capability is the extent to which a person has the ability or aptitude to do something. Developing employee capability includes more than work skills, though. As consultants writing for Deloitte said, cultivating employee capabilities should also focus on developing creativity, curiosity, empathy, courage, and imagination to increase organizational value by enabling employees to: Identify unseen problems and opportunities and develop approaches to address them more effectively, continuously adapt and acquire needed skills, and make day-to-day work experience more meaningful and satisfying. 
  6. Contribution

    Employees need to understand how their efforts and meeting work goals contribute to meeting organizational goals, fulfill the mission and vision and bring purpose to their lives. One survey found that 70 percent of employees find their sense of purpose is largely due to work. There is a large purpose gap too between executives and upper management and frontline managers and employees. Eighty-five percent (85%) of upper management agree they live their purpose in daily work. Eighty-five percent (85%) of frontline supervisors and employees are unsure or disagree they can live their purpose in daily work.
    It was ineffective leadership that led to frontline individuals feeling this way. For example, managers were not sharing the "big picture" with frontline supervisors and employees, so the frontline people had trouble recognizing the connection between daily work and the organization's purpose. It's important to help all employees find purpose in daily work through dialogue, providing forums to encourage employees to talk about ideas for fulfilling purpose, using compassionate leadership, and helping employees understand the organization's purpose.
  7. Sincerity

    A study on the impact of perceived emotional sincerity of leaders on the employee trust level found that American workers' trust was related to how they perceive emotional sincerity. Employees make judgments about the sincerity of their managers and supervisors.
    Your leaders display three types of emotions.
    • Genuine – emotion is experienced internally and expressed externally, i.e., excitement about a new project 
    • Deep acting – the leader isn't all that excited about the project but strives to find reasons to feel more excited 
    • Surface acting – fake displays of emotion Your employees can distinguish between these displays of emotion because external behaviors and nonverbal clues will give away the leaders regulating their emotions.

      Your leaders should lead with sincerity to develop positive employee relationships. What does that mean? It means being consistent, honest, straightforward, and truly concerned about employees. It also means expressing honest emotions. If truly excited about a project, the manager should express it. If not excited, then be honest with employees about concerns and challenges and work together to meet shared goals. Employees can share new perspectives that may change how the manager or supervisor feels about the work.

      The sincere leader helps each team member understand they are a valued member of the organization and builds a team perspective. Sincerity is expressed in various ways – honest conversations, maintaining a personal connection, giving employees recognition, offering feedback and assistance, and following through on commitments. It also includes maintaining a respectful workplace.
  8. Transparency

    Transparency, in this case, means leaders communicate clarity to employees on the common goals. Employees have a clear understanding of the what, why, and how of their efforts. Through transparent leadership, employees won't get distracted by low priorities, confusion, and fruitless conflicts or wonder about leadership ethics. They are motivated as individuals and team members, understand their responsibility, and are adaptable to change because of clarity about mission and goals.
    The first step is defining the mission and building on that to develop strategy and actionable steps for success. Goals play a big role in transparency because they make the destination known.
  9. Recognition

    Employee recognition is one of the most important building blocks of employee engagement. It can be anything from the proverbial pat on the back for a job well done or formal recognition, like a bonus or promotion. Recognition is a form of appreciation, and showing recognition increases engagement. Recognition delivers many benefits to employees and to the organization.  
    The Achievers' 2020 Engagement & Retention Report shared the results of a survey of employees across the country. The survey was trying to pinpoint why 64 percent of employees were expected to leave their jobs in 2020. This remains a relevant topic in 2021 as the Resignation Nation takes shape.
    The survey found organizations that have cultures of recognition are: 
    • More than twice as likely to experience improved employee engagement 
    • Have employees who have a greater sense of belonging  
    • Have more motivated employees 
    • Have employees who want to remain with the company 
    • Likely to experience stronger team relationships 
  10. Trustworthiness

    trustworthy leader believes employees want to do their best. Your managers and supervisors always act in a way that helps employees succeed. Trustworthiness builds credibility in your company because employees are more likely to act in a way that benefits their work, the team, and the organization.

Unengaged Workforce Presents Risks

There are risks to having an unengaged workforce. It's not just what might be missed – like retention of valued talent or productivity increases. There is a real risk of troublesome events happening, like some employees starting a union organizing campaign, but a disengaged workforce can even threaten long-term organizational sustainability. Disengaged employees have low morale, which leads to poor customer service, lower productivity, grievances, and other harmful actions. 

The purpose of A Better Leader's Employee Engagement Matters training video is to create a high level of "buy-in" from leadership, so they are more motivated to cultivate an engaged workforce, thus helping the company achieve the overall desired results. When listing the benefits of employee engagement, place this one at the top: Business success!

Empowering Leaders Through Training to Engage Employees

Your leaders need to understand the importance of employee engagement fully, but beyond that, they should be empowered to improve workforce engagement. Empowerment comes through leadership training that develops the skills for leveraging the drivers of employee engagement.  The drivers include leaders who can be trusted and have integrity. They know how to develop effective relationships with coworkers and managers. They notice and appreciate employee efforts regularly and are effective communicators. They promote a coaching culture that supports employees in their efforts to grow and succeed in their jobs and careers.

It is also crucial that engaging leaders develop employees who have a clear vision of what lies ahead for their careers and get the resources, feedback, and training needed to reach goals. They have a sense of forward movement and are not feeling "stuck" in their jobs. 

Without training, some of your leaders will not know how to engage employees, even if they understand the importance of engagement. They also won't know how to maintain engagement which is key to achieving lasting results. There are a variety of ways to deliver leadership training. Thanks to technology, you can train and track leadership training using online leadership courses, podcasts, nudges, apps, and more.

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About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is Director of IRI's Digital Workplace Solutions Group, and the founder of A Better Leader. Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.