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What’s the point of employee engagement?

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Some years ago I worked for a company that had an issue with absenteeism. People were off sick all the time, and it was costing the company a lot of money, not to mention the impact on customer service and general morale around the office… So what was the company’s (well-meaning) solution to this issue? They put in place an entire absence management team, consisting of six or so people, recruited for their terrier-like investigation skills. The team was charged with developing and implementing an absence management policy to reduce absenteeism. They became a kind of company mafia, feared by many, even those with a legitimate cause to be absent. They operated a “guilty until proven innocent” approach and whilst in the short term absence did come down, in the longer term a whole lot of damage was done. Morale dropped further, engagement fell, more people left the company and worse still was the impact on customers… it really wasn’t good.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated story, but one I see all too often. Companies struggling with the common people issues often focus on the symptoms, rather than considering the root cause. Do any of these problems and solutions sound familiar to you?

  • High employee turnover? Let’s implement a loyalty bonus or long-term incentive plan.

  • High absenteeism? Why not put in place a draconian policy to make it almost impossible to take a day off sick without fear of negative repercussions.

  • Poor quality? The answer must be to introduce stringent targets and measures.

  • Lack of innovation? How about we introduce an ideas scheme or an innovation bonus.

What all of these solutions fail to do is to understand the root cause of the symptoms presented: which of course is employees are not engaged or even actively disengaged. The reason we see these all too common people issues in our workplaces are nearly always because we’re not getting it right with our people. The ever-growing body of evidence shows us that if you get it right with your people, if you engage them, then all of these problems begin to go away, and better still, they stay away. We know from research that engaged employees are less likely to leave, less likely to be off sick, outperform disengaged employees, are more innovative, sell more, and so the list goes on. 

So yes, there is a very valid point in engaging your employees: to help your business succeed and achieve your business goals. So why do so many organisations try to fix these issues in the ways I’ve outlined above? I believe it’s because engagement is such a big, intangible, often abstract concept that it’s difficult to know where to begin. It’s like saying we need better communication or better leadership or we want to be happier – all hard to argue with but in a practical sense, where on earth do you begin? 

 The challenge is that the root causes of the symptoms listed above, that is the root causes of disengagement, are not straightforward to pinpoint. It could be employees have no clear sense of purpose, or maybe they struggle to understand why they are there. Maybe leaders and managers are compounding the problems, treating people badly or simply not understanding how to be an engaging manager. Perhaps employees don’t feel very valued or trusted, or maybe they have limited opportunities for autonomy. Or it could be they don't feel listened to, or that they have a voice.

These are some of the root causes of the symptoms so many organisations are struggling with. These are the root causes that result in employee disengagement. And when your employees are disengaged, they are more likely to leave, or go off sick, or be less productive. So, let’s turn this on its head: by focusing on the root causes, you can begin to improve engagement within your own organisation. Do you need to help your managers engage with their teams? Or maybe instil a sense of purpose throughout your workforce? Or do you need to inspire trust and confidence? Or give employees a voice?

My book, Employee Engagement, takes a really practical look at what you can do to improve and develop employee engagement. It offers practical guidance to help you start working on those things that will make a difference, those areas that will result in improving and developing engagement with your employees. The book shares insights, tools, techniques and case studies from other organisations, to help you start to improve employee engagement straight away.