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Has employee engagement declined in your organisation?

woman at her desk, balancing a pencil on her top lip.

How much do you care about engagement? Does it matter to you if your people are genuinely and actively committed to working for your organisation? Do you invest in a culture that promotes engagement, or do you feel that’s too ‘soft’ and you’d rather prioritise profits?

It’s a recognised fact that an engaged workforce leads to better financial results. In 1990, psychologist William Kahn wrote a paper describing his research into how people choose the ways they engage with their work environment. He showed that the levels of engagement impacted individual performance, which in turn impacted business performance.

Kahn identified three areas of engagement:

  • Physical engagement – the levels of energy that people have during their working day.

  • Cognitive engagement – understanding the vision and values of the employer and understanding their role, and what they are expected to deliver.

  • Emotional engagement – whether people trust the organisation and feel that the organisation trusts them. This helps to create a feeling of belonging, which has a positive impact on performance.

Kahn’s work was the starting point for people understanding the importance of employee engagement, and this area is now a central part of management theory. There is a huge industry associated with employee engagement, and clear case studies of how a positive, engaged culture can benefit everyone.

Employee engagement is falling

I’ve read several reports and articles this year that suggest employee engagement is falling. In fact, a study by Dale Carnegie Training revealed the disturbing statistic that almost 75% of employees say they are not fully engaged at work.

Commentators have several theories about why this might be the case. For example, it may partly be to do with organisations tackling the hybrid working issues – employers and employees are finding they have different approaches to what works, and employees are demotivated by being ordered into the office, or monitored at home.

This reassessment of work-life balance during Covid led to many employees prioritising non-work commitments such as family, exercise or volunteering. They were able to get into a ‘routine’ of working differently, and this has remained important for long-term approaches to work post-pandemic.

Or it may be that employees feel they still have the upper hand in terms of being able to move to another organisation with a better culture or work-life balance, and so are more demanding of their existing employer.

Whatever the causes, there are some damaging effects of poor engagement:

  • Demotivated employees

  • Reduced collaboration

  • Poorer working environment

  • Lower effectiveness and productivity

  • Higher employee turnover

We’ve all worked in organisations where there is a poor culture and a lack of engagement in our work. When that happens, we are easily distracted, we do our tasks to the bare minimum, and we spend our spare time looking for another job.


What can leaders do?

The ‘C’ word is a big factor here. The culture of your organisation really does matter. Having worked with a range of organisations, from multi-national businesses to niche professional service firms, I can tell quite a lot about the culture just from walking into reception.  

As a leader, you’ll often hear that culture is led from the top. It’s certainly true that the culture is usually set at the top, but in order to become a true ‘culture’, every person in the organisation has a role to play. Everyone should be – and feel – involved in the attitudes and approaches that the organisation takes. Leaders play an important role here, making sure that they are modelling the right behaviours, and encouraging others to do the same.

According to Dale Carnegie, organisations often focus on too many things when they start to tackle an employee engagement problem. It suggests that there are three drivers that have a ‘significant influence’ on employee engagement:

  • Trust in leadership

  • Individual relationship with the manager

  • Pride in the organisation

With this in mind, here are my top tips for leaders who want to improve engagement – and therefore performance and retention:

  • Build strong relationships, particularly with those you manage. Remember to be human and make time for people, so they can see you are genuinely interested in them and their contribution. Make sure people are using their strengths and are clear what they are trying to achieve – and why. This is important – for example, in a survey by Encompass Equality, 82% of women said that line manager support was a major driver of whether to stay at an organisation or not.

  • Work on building trust with the people you work with – this is not just the people who report to you, but all the people you work with. This is even more important in a hybrid environment, where you may not see colleagues face-to-face very often – or at all. It takes time to build this trust – but it can be lost in just a single interaction.

  • Make sure hybrid working is working for yourself and others. It’s easy for people to go into their own bubble – including leaders. So you need to make an effort to promote regular dialogue. Organisations only work when people work together, and even when people choose to work from home, it’s important that they feel a valued part of the organisation.

  • Learn how to manage difficult conversations well. This is a tricky part of being a leader, and has a significant impact on engagement. You will almost certainly have to have difficult conversations with people in your team – the way you manage this can help to build the trust you need.

  • Understand how to support your team within professional boundaries. This is an area where leaders often struggle. Either they are too willing to help and support, or they rigidly enforce regulations and boundaries. You need to strive for a happy medium, where employees are aware of their responsibilities and are happy to flex when needed, but also feel supported if they have issues that affect their day-to-day commitments.

All these tasks are for leaders, but it’s important to remember that a good culture is where everyone is contributing and accountable. These tips allow your people to be clear about what they are doing, feel trusted and appreciated, and therefore take greater responsibility for their own delivery and performance.

If you need support understanding how to build trust, you might find the Trust Equation useful. I explain this concept in my book, Getting on: Making work work, and there’s a useful free resource that you can use to help you plot your current relationships and identify the areas you may need to work on.

If you think that your leaders could benefit from support to improve employee engagement and therefore retention and productivity, why not contact me to book a call to see how I can help?