Employee Engagement: The Buzzword of the Moment

What I suspect is happening is that this uptick in concern for Employee Engagement stems from the challenges they are facing with their new Millennial employees.

I’d like to take a look at what appears to be the Buzzword of the Moment running through the business world: Employee Engagement.  It’s everywhere.  Everyone is talking about it.  If they aren’t talking about it, they are writing articles about it (like this one from Business2Community, or this one from The Financial Express, or this one from the Association for Talent Development).  The re-emergence of this buzzword coincides with the emergence of Millennials as a majority of the workforce in the US.  It’s almost as if businesses, who now have Millennials in their employee base, have just discovered all of the stereotypes that go with them.  What are some of these stereotypes?  Allow me to demonstrate with this Word Cloud based on the word Millennial courtesy of Millennial Messaging:

Millennials Word Cloud

With these kinds of challenges to the way that companies have been operating for years, this presents a definite set of issues for any company and/or HR department.  What I suspect is happening is that this uptick in concern for Employee Engagement stems from the challenges they are facing with their new Millennial employees.  They are thinking, “Well, if I can fix employee engagement at all levels, everyone will be more engaged and the challenges will go away!”.

This is an admirable goal, but we’ve talked in the past about how it is short-sighted, especially when it comes to Millennials.  A recent webinar with Bob Kelleher, author and founder of Employee Engagement, pointed out a couple of challenges with this kind of approach to employee engagement, and even though it wasn’t emphasized much, gave what I think are some great tips for employers who are trying to deal with challenges presented to them by Millennial employees.

According to recent surveys cited in the webinar, only 32.5% of employees are engaged at work.  Not only is that number concerning, another 51% are either disengaged or actively disengaged.  These two numbers are part of the reason Employee Engagement has become a huge industry buzzword at the moment, but as Bob pointed out in the webinar an employee can work for a great company with an iconic leader and still be disengaged.  An employee can be part of a world-class employee culture and still be disengaged.  This simple truth cuts through one common myth about engagement: That if we can increase baseline employee engagement, everyone will be more engaged.  It’s the rising tide lifts all boats argument, and just like in economics, it’s a nice idea…but it’s not reality.

Disengaged EmployeesThe reality, as Bob points out, is that a single employee will go through different levels of engagement over time, depending on their circumstances.  If an employee is particularly excited about a particular project they are working on, engagement levels will rise.  If that same employee, three months later, starts suffering from health problems, engagement will drop.  Employees who are facing stresses at home, whether they are financial/family related/health related/relationship related are going to be less engaged than employees who are not facing those pressures.  In order to try to improve engagement levels, you need to start looking at the whole employee.

One example of how you can do this is to think of the employee standing at the center of a circle of interlocking puzzle pieces.  Half of the circle is made up of pieces that relate to an Individual’s Life, things like Personal Values, Personal Relationships, Health/Wellbeing and the Degree of Freedom they feel.  The opposite half of the circle is made up of pieces that relate to a person’s Work Life, and include things like an employee’s Work Location, Supervisor, their Job/Career Ladder and Work Culture.

On a Side Note

Please note that the webinar had this as a visual, but I’m not including it in this post because it is from one of the company’s upcoming books.  To see it, click the Watch this Webinar link. 

The idea is that any piece of the puzzle is affected by other pieces, sometimes pieces that may not be directly touching it.  For example, Personal relationships often have a direct effect on Work relationships.  As an example, an employee going through a divorce at home is going to be under a huge amount of stress…stress which they cannot simply remove the minute they walk in the door to the office.  This is likely to make them short or terse with their coworkers, which will not only affect that employee’s engagement, but it will also affect the engagement of their coworkers.  So changes in one area will affect an employee’s level of engagement, and sometimes seeing signs of disengagement have nothing at all to do with factors within an employer’s control.

One piece of this whole-person approach I thought was very applicable to one common (and often true) stereotype of Millennials is pointed out on this wheel:  Personal values vs. Corporate Mission.  The idea is the same here:  If an employee has a strong set of personal values to protect the environment for example, it’s unlikely that they will be happily engaged if they work for a company who gets involved in fracking or gets fined by the EPA for a massive pollution event.  People have pointed out that Millennials have several strong beliefs relating to diversity and issues of social justice.  Those beliefs are going to color not only which companies they chose to work for, but also their levels of engagement if they are working in a company who violates those beliefs but they don’t feel like they have the freedom to either change or leave.

I would counsel employers that yes, employee engagement is a big deal.  But it’s also a lot bigger than just paying more, adding benefits or going through the more corny actions like bringing in pool tables or gaming stations into break rooms.  If you truly want to engage the 51% of employees at your organization who are disengaged or actively disengaged, you need to start by taking a long, hard look in the mirror at the real reasons there is disengagement, and be willing to change business as usual in order to bring your daily operations more in line with what your employees tell you would increase their engagement.  It may mean starting a mentor program.  It might mean increasing your budgets to accommodate training for your employees to advance their skills, and it might even mean shaking up hierarchy and structure to allow for employee advancement.

iEngage: Your Personal Engagement Roadmap is available in the Training Magazine Network Webinar Archives.

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