Recognizing Engagement

The topic of employee engagement continues to make frequent appearances across the breadth of Human Resources communications channels. Everyone involved in the management of people (or involved in educating and informing those who manage people), has been dissecting employee engagement for the past couple of years. Even Dale Carnegie’s iconic book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” has been recast as a tool for building engagement.

Throughout this extensive exploration of employee engagement, many questions (like these), continue to generate debate:

And of course, the million dollar question…

In spite of the volume of engagement data and insight this exploration has generated, little has been said about the specific signs and symptoms of engaged workers. How does a manager know when her team is engaged? Aside from conducting employee engagement surveys, which have their own limitations, what indicators can employers look for on a day-to-day basis to determine whether their workforce is generally engaged?

Based on the notion of engagement as a willingness to invest discretionary effort on behalf of the organization, one might assume that the most engaged workers will have their heads down and be buried in work at all times. It’s not surprising that many commonly touted “engagement behaviors” relate to work habits and productivity. For example, we are told that engaged employees:

  • Stay late and arrive early;
  • Take on extra projects;
  • Go out of their way to make customers happy; and
  • Offer pro-actively constructive suggestions for improvement.[1]

But there’s another facet of employee engagement that stems from two key drivers of engagement: doing meaningful work and having positive working relationships. Engagement indicators produced by these factors are less “nose to the grindstone” and more “working here rocks!” behaviors that may include:

  • Laughter,
  • Spontaneous collaboration,
  • Social interaction with co-workers and managers,
  • Clear enthusiasm for the organization’s mission, vision and values,
  • Encouraging friends to apply for job openings, and
  • Offering to mentor new hires.

In organizations where management is less sensitized to the value of an engaged workforce, some of these latter indicators might even be seen as behaviors that reduce productivity rather than enhancing it.

Regardless of what we call it and how it manifests itself in the workplace, employee engagement will continue to be worth striving for since it’s so closely tied to high performance for individuals, teams and organizations. Focusing exclusively on the productivity side of the engagement equation, however, can lead to unintended consequences. As Tony Schwartz writes in his HBR article New Research: How Employee Engagement Hits the Bottom Line:

“For organizations, the challenge is to shift from their traditional focus on getting more out of people, to investing in meeting people’s core needs so they’re freed, fueled, and inspired to bring more of themselves to work, more sustainably.”

The paradox of employee engagement is this—the more you push people to produce at the expense of workplace relationships and meaningful work, the less engaged they become. Conversely, the more you focus on being the kind of organization people want to work for, developing the kind of leaders people want to follow, and creating a work environment where people thrive—the more engaged and productive they will be.


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