The term “employee engagement” is thrown around a lot in business circles, but what does it actually mean on a functional level? At its roots, “engagement” has to do with passion. Employee engagement, then, deals with helping employees to find or retain passion for the work that they do. Easy, right? Wrong. Every day, hordes of employees arrive to their respective places of business, but all that walks through the door is the body; both the mind and the spirit are far, far away.
For many of these employees, work is something that they do out of habit. They do it because they have to. They have bills to pay, groceries to buy, extra-curricular activities to support. Some of them had planned to retire, but were unable to do so when they saw their retirement funds dwindle in an unstable marketplace. With the latter priorities taking precedence, the question of whether employees actually like the work they do often falls to the bottom of their lists. It’s a question that they often feel is safer left unanswered, but truth is a slippery creature, and it’s stubborn. Whether they like it or not, the truth about an employee’s dissatisfaction will inevitably come out, and most often it will appear in subtle ways. Over a period of months, even years, a once-enthusiastic employee’s level of productivity will slowly drop off. Sometimes the shift in engagement is so slow that leaders are left wondering whether it had always been that way. Had they just not noticed until now? Did they simply make a bad hiring decision?
Although sometimes the answer is that there is a poor fit between the person and the job, more often, dwindling productivity is due, for one reason or another, to decreasing levels of engagement. These individuals go through the motions, but their minds are elsewhere. Why in the world is that person taking so long to slog through that one, measly task, you ask? Because that employee doesn’t care about the task he or she has been given.
This is not to say that leaders are entirely responsible for making sure that their employees are “happy.” To the contrary, happy employees who spend their time socializing and surfing the web can be just as unproductive as those who are disengaged from their work. What’s important for leaders to remember is that employees who are dissatisfied and those who are happy (but fail to do their work) have one big thing in common: both groups are bored. They lack motivation. They don’t see the value or purpose of the work they’ve been asked to do. Their assigned work is failing to hold their attention, so they’re finding other things to do to pass the time. For employers, this disinterest can mean huge losses—in terms of their time, their companies’ productivity and profit margin, and the hefty expense of training new staff to replace team members who are lost to attrition (either self-selected or imposed).
Almost no one gets to work exclusively on assignments they love all the time. With every job comes some drudgery, whether minor or pronounced. Maybe this grind comes in the form of having too much of a certain type of task to complete. Maybe project deadlines are too short and come with long hours and little recognition. Maybe the job is deadly repetitive or, conversely, maybe it comes with too many surprises. It is not up to leaders to try to provide the ideal work environment for every one of their employees all the time. That is an impossibility. But what leaders should strive to do is communicate openly with their employees, working with them to create the best possible environments for their individual interests. Employees need to have some control over the scope and responsibilities of their respective jobs, and they need to be supported and encouraged to pursue opportunities within the organization that speak to their passions and allow them to develop new or expand existing professional skills. Not only will this flexible style of leadership help the collective abilities of your workforce grow, you will also be more likely to retain previously high-performing employees whose interest in their current job responsibilities has diminished. “Employee engagement” may sound like touchy-feely management fluff, but by taking an active interest in whether your employees are genuinely satisfied and invigorated by their jobs, you can elevate the performance of both your workforce and your organization.