A Closer Look at Employee Engagement
8 January 2016 - Devi Clark

Feedback, Job Crafting & Employee Engagement

Anyone who has employed staff knows that managing a team can be wonderful, but can also be tough and complex. On 1st December Robbie Semple from Worthwhile came to speak with social entrepreneurs to help them create the kind of working relationships that get the best out of everyone.

“Employee Engagement” is something of a buzz-phrase in corporate circles, but the principles can be applied to SMEs too. There are many definitions, but Robbie shared this one with us:

“Being positively present during the performance of work, by willingly contributing intellectual effort, experiencing positive emotions and meaningful connections to others.”

Management theory has gone through quite an evolution, Robbie pointed out.  From the “Scientific Management” era where tasks were clearly defined by management and implemented by the workers (the production line approach), via the research by Elton Mayo which reminded managers that paying attention to their workers helped increase their productivity, to George Gallup in the latter half of the 20th century who created 12 question surveys (still widely used) to ask employees how they felt about their employer.

Changes in employees’ expectations

21st century theories were shared in Dan Pink’s book, Drive.  Drive identifies three motivators that matter to many people in the modern world:

  • autonomy
  • mastery
  • purpose

The conditions of employment and the relationships within the workplace support the achievement of these three motivators. Increasingly the expectation in our society is that work should provide all these things.

Robbie pointed out that as society and workplaces have developed, employees’ expectations have gone higher up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So, scientific management worked in an era when the need for safety was paramount. Mayo’s theories reflect the need for belonging, Gallop for esteem and Pink for Self-Actualisation.

Human beings see patterns in everything and so look for meaning in their work.  Robbie identified us to the concept of a “Yuccie”: Young Urban Creative Class who demand this from their work, and recommended The Brave New World of Work by Ulrich Beck for those who wanted to find out more.

Sadly, for many, particularly young people and other excluded groups, while culture demands they should be looking for fulfilling work, the level of graduate unemployment means that what they are lacking is the safety of employment and affordable living – a factor much lower down the hierarchy of needs.

A tool to examine an employees’ job role (or your own)

Having outlined the theory, Robbie asked us to examine our own job as a model of how to think about managing our employees’ jobs. This is an exercise you could do now yourself.

First, write down the things you spend time doing in your job right now. Put a box around each one to reflect the time each takes out of the total you spend on work – larger boxes for more time, and a small box for the things you only do occasionally. You will probably end up with between approx. 5 and 15 main areas you work on.

Then, on a new page write three headings: Strengths, Motives and Passions. For each, write two or three things that are true about you. So, for example, one of your strengths might be being organised, or it might be designing amazing websites. Your motives may be about learning, or working on innovative ideas. Your passions may include bringing the experience of nature to young people or making the world a more just and equal place.

Finally, look back at your first diagram and see what adjustments you can make in the light of the strengths, motivations and passions you listed. If there is something which plays a big part in your role, but which is not on your second list, is there a way of altering it?  Create a new “after” diagram based on your ideal work balance.

Robbie suggested we ask ourselves:

  • What tasks could be adapted, delegated or dropped altogether?
  • What relationships could be emphasised to help bring the new role about?
  • What ways are you currently framing tasks that causes them to seem dissatisfying? How could this be changed?

Reframing techniques as a motivational tool

We discussed the fact that some roles are more amenable to this kind of job crafting than others. In fact, in every job there will be activities that you just have to do, even if you don’t like them. Reframing these (e.g. they are part of a larger whole that you are motivated by) may help.

It is worth remembering that even if you are someone who likes to create new ideas, see the big picture and can’t stand admin, there are those who genuinely love detail and order and the satisfaction that completing a lot of filing can bring. Mastery of anything in itself is motivating.

Robbie told us the story of working with an employee who thought the new targets their company had introduced were unreasonable. She was sure that she could never reach them and that the targets would lead to her being fired. She also believed that going for larger numbers meant that the quality of her work would be affected – she would be unable to spend so much time with each customer.

Though it took time, Robbie worked with her to move towards the targets successfully. In the process, she gained a lot of confidence and let go of many of her limiting beliefs about what she was capable of and that the quality of what she did would be affected. Each month she achieved a little more, and found that gaining mastery was very motivating.

Robbie shared another quotation in this respect: “Doing what you like is freedom. Loving what you do is happiness.” If you can find a way to love, and to master, the work you do, then you have achieved real fulfilment.

Robbie did admit that this would not always work. Sometimes employees will feel that the job does not match their expectations or motivations and there may be little you can do to change that.

Start building up future skills, today

Nonetheless, we can help most of our people see there is a future for them working with us. Robbie asked us to think of a senior role in our organisation that our employees might aspire to in 5 – 10 years and identify the 5 most important skills for this role. For each skill, he then asked us to identify 3 other roles or activities that our employee might undertake now so that they could develop this skill.

We finished with a simple reminder that there are many ways to help our employees feel good about themselves. We each came up with a list of things we could do to recognise, praise or help our employees feel engaged.

It is easy, in the midst of our busy-ness, to forget to focus on the people who work for us. I was reminded of how easy it is to end up giving the attention to the people who are the most difficult. But to create the culture and work climate that we want, it is just as important to focus on the people who are working really well and who we want to stay motivated.

So I leave you with this thought – what simple thing could you do today to recognise and support the people who work for you?

If your organisation is in early stage recruitment, you may also find this article on ‘Recruitment Best Practices’ insightful.