The long game: Putting employee engagement before productivity

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It comes as no surprise that good employee engagement is good for productivity. According to a study by Gallup, engaged workers are 21% more productive than their disengaged peers. It makes sense that engagement and productivity levels are linked, but it’s important to remember that they are not synonymous. Identifying engagement levels of your employees can be difficult. But if you’re going to put emphasis on influencing one of these, choose employee engagement. In the long-run, it’s this that will lead to greater overall business success.  

Many companies ‘take the temperature’ of their workforce at a given point in time – for example, through an annual pulse survey. But this isn’t a true reflection of ongoing employee engagement.

In a recent survey, Rungway found that two in five British workers (40%) don’t see themselves as an engaged employee. As the definition of engaged is subjective, the 2,000 respondents were told to think of an engaged employee as ‘someone who is fully absorbed by and is enthusiastic about their work, and so takes positive action to further the organisation’s interests.’

Perhaps more worryingly, these workers were also asked whether their managers were engaged, to which 36% answered ‘no’. Managers, though, represent the business and are the very people who should be helping to motivate and inspire others. These figures suggest there’s clear room for improvement in managers’ engagement levels and this is, unsurprisingly, affecting employee engagement too. Disengaged employees walk away, and companies risk losing their best people if they fail to recognise this problem or don’t act to fix it.

So, how do leaders influence engagement levels for better business results?

Listen, don’t just hear

Personal circumstances can have a huge effect on engagement and you may think that these are outside of a company’s control. Actually, companies can go a long way to support workers who feel anxious, uncertain or uneasy about external issues.

Employees should be offered a way to voice these concerns and be given support without judgement. Listening to someone is one thing, but making them feel heard is even more powerful. For example on Rungway we see a number of employees voicing anxieties about Brexit. How are you keeping communication channels open on this topic? You may not have all the answers, but at least you can show you are listening.

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Remove toxins

We’ve already mentioned the role of managers in influencing their employees’ engagement and we know the phrase ‘people leave managers, not companies’. But peers play a key role in motivation too.

Ellen Pao, ex-CEO at Reddit, recently shared a great example about addressing a ‘toxic’ employee in the organisation in a Freakonomics episode on CEO problems. Ellen told the story of a star engineer who was also ‘kind of a jerk’, explaining to the presenter that, “The head of engineering is often unlikely to do anything about it, because they’ve got deadlines they have to meet. Maybe the product is supposed to ship in a couple of weeks, and how do you fire the one person who’s actually going to get you over the finish line? It’s up to the CEO to say, “No, we need to get rid of this person. We’re going to move the ship date out. We’re going to disappoint some customers. But it is important enough to the company, and to me, that I need to make this call.”

This is an excellent example of where immediate goals could be worth sacrificing for the sake of more engaged workers longer term. Leaders can’t afford to be short-sighted – they need to remember to play the long game. More engaged workers now will lead to better retention and productivity in the long-run.

Help people know their place

It’s not only a question of forward but also diverse thinking. The diversity of today’s workforce means there needs to be a different kind of engagement. Help people understand their role and where they fit. This helps generate trust among all parties. Former-CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, believes that the key to success as a leader is building truth and trust. He was quoted in a CNBC interview saying, “If you are a leader and you are a manager, shame on you if people don't know where they stand. You have a moral obligation leading people's lives, talking about their future and not telling them where they stand. It is incredible. It is a shock to me.”

Tackling an engagement issue in a company may seem like an almighty task, but ask yourself some simple questions: What tools could we implement now to make honest communication easier? How can we get truthful feedback on how people really feel? This kind of thinking will provide a springboard for action. We should always be preparing for an uncertain future to disrupt our workforce. Focusing on employee engagement is the long game, but a rewarding one.

Originally featured in Real Business