Chances are that you are far from having most employees engaged. Gallup, Hewitt, Towers-Watson, and others have reported figures indicating that as many as 60% of employees are disengaged. The Metrus Institute does not find disengagement numbers that high—20-30% measured in our engagement surveys—perhaps due to how we count partially engaged workers. The real truth is that most employees are neither fervently engaged nor organizational terrorists. The vast majority of employees that we diagnose are partially engaged, with engagement scores often ranging from over 95% in some units to less than 30% in others and many in the middle ranges.
The vast majority of organizations achieve partial engagement with scores that can vary widely across individual units. For example, one health care group which included over 50 hospitals was found to have one hospital with an engagement score near 90% and another with a score below 20% – in which would you like to have your next surgical operation? This extreme degree of variation is relatively rare, but a range of engagement levels is almost always found.
Why the variance? Managers have much to do with it. Within the same organizational context, some managers can engage most of their workers while other managers struggle to engage any. Another profile is that of an ‘in’ group and an ‘out’ group under a manager. Some of his or her employees are highly engaged and others are not. What’s going on?
In both cases the root is the individual. George Graen and his collaborators pinned the ‘in-out group’ result on tendencies of managers to seek loyalists—you help me get the job done and I’ll help your career.* Many managers look for the most competent and loyal (to the manager) new hires to bring into the ‘in’ group where high trust is created, while an outer shell of employees provide less commitment and in turn receive less support from the manager. But why not create more (or all) ‘in-group’ members? One reason is that managers only have enough resources—raises, incentives, time, development slots—to support a subset of their employees. Another is the forced rankings—explicitly or implicitly— dropped on managers by arcane performance management systems.
Outstanding managers find creative ways to focus on the individual—his or her needs, strengths, passions, and motivators. If you are looking for the silver bullet, that’s it! Research at the Metrus Institute (and others) has identified three big drivers of Engagement: Career growth, effective incentives, and trust. The relative importance of these can depend on the life stage or prior experiences of the individual. For example, some employees are at early career stages and want guidance on how they are tracking toward their career or job goals. Others may be primarily focused on monetary incentives because of their life stage or situation, while others are more driven by recognition than money. Still others are balancing other non-work demands in their life and need supportive bosses who care to find win-win work schedules and tasks.
Trust, however, appears to be the overarching factor that can build, or destroy, engagement. Trust is created by mutual respect and predictability of having the other person’s best interests in mind. Trust killers include unfair treatment, hidden agendas, closed communication, and lack of respect. Trust can take months or years to build but it can be destroyed overnight.
On the other hand, living up to commitments and following through – doing what you say you will do – creates a foundation for trust. Simple actions, such as giving your employees credit for success, particularly to higher ups, demonstrates your commitment to the other person. Rather than diminish you as a manager, it conveys your leadership skill since you, after all, are the leader of the team. A win-win tactic if ever there was one.
In the end, effective managers learn these lessons and are rewarded handsomely by higher commitment, energy, productivity, creativity, and tenure of their employees. But organizations need to do more to accelerate these learnings. What a shame for most organizations to have over 50% of their managers who are not optimizing the human investment the organization has made. Engagement is the responsibility of all managers and will best be achieved by those who can offer the same high degree of respect to all, while recognizing and supporting the differences that each individual brings.
*Graen, G. B. & Grace, M. (2015). New talent strategy: Attract, process, educate, empower, engage and retain the best. Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP); Graen, G. B. & Schiemann, W. (2013). Leadership-motivated excellence theory: An extension of LMX Journal of Managerial Psychology, 28, 5, 452-469.