The term “employee engagement” is used in business a lot like the term “customer satisfaction.” Every business knows both are good and that more is better. But, only the organizations that really take the time to understand what these terms really mean and how they can be measured are able to improve their results. We know that engaged employees are a key element of any successful culture of continuous improvement, so we've spent quite a bit of time studying exactly what the definition of employee engagement is.
Employee Engagement is an Emotional Connection to the Organization and its Mission and Values
If you have a negative reaction to the use of the word “emotional,” I don’t blame you. Business leaders spend a lot of time trying to keep the emotion out of business. We talk about how to make data-driven decisions, support dispassionate disagreement, and encourage professionalism. That’s all well and good, but employees are human beings and as such, often naturally make decisions based on feelings. An employee who has no emotions toward their employer is not as invested in their job performance and the success of the company as one who does, regardless of how well they are compensated.
An Emotional Connection Results in Discretionary Effort
Employee engagement often goes into the “I know it when I see it” category. Here’s an example. Early in January, I hired a tree service to prune some fruit trees. The workers were polite, efficient, and they did a good job. I was completely satisfied with the service. As they were leaving, one worker noticed that my Christmas tree was propped up against the fence waiting for me to cut it down and add it to the green waste. The worker asked if I would like him to put it in the chipper. Would I ever! He had nothing to gain by doing me a favor and dragging one more tree out to the street. I was already happy, and his boss wasn’t there. He simply was engaged in his company’s mission to delight every client and he was willing to go the extra mile on his own. That’s what discretionary effort looks like - and because of it, his company gained a loyal and passionate fan.
Engagement is NOT Happiness or Satisfaction
Many leaders make the mistake of confusing happiness or satisfaction with engagement. Free snacks or a Foosball table might make employees happy, but they do not create an emotional connection (unless they are part of a larger story of caring about the well being of each team member). Likewise, an employee can be perfectly satisfied with their job, but work only hard enough not to get fired.
Engagement CAN Be Measured
It may seem impossible to measure emotion, but just like people behave differently toward people they love, employees behave differently when they are engaged at work. This behavior can be measured to set a baseline for engagement and track your efforts to improve. You can measure engagement either by asking employees these questions directly or analyzing their behavior:
Question: Are you likely to refer a friend for employment?
Evidence: Employee referrals
Question: Do you think about looking for a job with another company?
Evidence: Employee turnover rates
Question: Do you work extra hours without being asked?
Evidence: Successful achievement of individual, department, and company goals
Question: Do you offer ideas for improvement?
Evidence: Opportunities for improvement entered into business management system
Question: Do you feel pride in your company?
Evidence: Company-related social media activities by employees
Employee engagement is rarely achieved by accident, nor is it usually the result of a specific one-time program. An emotional connection comes from every part of the experience of being an employee. It is a result of the employee’s perception of how the organization feels about their performance, value and needs. It flourishes when leaders understand that employee well being and business results are not a zero sum game.
Employees who are more engaged participate more in continuous improvement and innovation efforts.