Are Your Employees Engaged? How Do You Know?

Nancy Slessenger
April 27, 2009 — 2,479 views  
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The Olden Days

In the days when courses of a week were still in fashion, I used to run a course of four days split into two sessions a month apart. It was a course in 'Personal Effectiveness'. It was one I particularly enjoyed as it covered a wide range of topics and we often got really great results for the people participating.

I remember one particular course. There were about ten people taking part. Well, most of them were taking part. There was one guy, David, at the back who said nothing for the whole two days of the first part.

Everyone else was lively and engaged with what was going on, making comments and suggestions and discussing the points. They all seemed very keen.

The Feedback Forms At the end of the second day they all filled in their feedback forms.

David had rated the course so far as '7' on average. The others gave '9's and '10's. I remember thinking to myself that I must do something to get him more involved when he came back a month later.

A Month Later Four weeks later they all came back and it was time to see what had been achieved so far.

I went round the room. Hardly anything had been implemented by anyone. People had lots of excuses; mainly around been 'busy'. Finally we got to David. I can still see him sitting there getting out his notes.

What David Had Done One of the areas we had learned about was the difference between proactive and reactive behaviour, or 'fire-fighting' as it is often called.

David showed us his charts and graphs. He had spent the first week when he got back analysing the work he did as a Purchasing Manager and identified that 80% of it was reactive. This meant he was forever chasing round trying to catch up.

He had set himself a target of 80% proactive.

Over the next three weeks he had changed how he worked and now 50% of his work was proactive and he fully expected to achieve his goal in the next few weeks.

Stunned The rest of the group gasped in amazement. (So did I.) There were astonished. In all my years of running workshops and courses David's achievements still stand out as being amongst the most impressive.

Was He 'Engaged'? I recount this story because I have been having interesting conversations recently with clients about 'employee engagement'. There have been a number of different definitions of 'engagement'.

The Definition At one end of the scale is an organisation eager to reduce absence rates and staff turnover. For them, 'engagement' is clearly about people actually turning up for work.

At the other end of the scale, we have: 'when employees have choices, they will act in a way that furthers their organization's interests. An engaged employee is a person who is fully involved in, and enthusiastic about, his or her work'. (from Wikipedia)

Who was really engaged? It's clear that David is closer to the second definition than merely the 'turning up for work' end. However it would also be true to say that his fellow participants on the workshop would have met the second part of that definition (being 'enthusiastic about his or her work').

But not a single benefit to the organisation had resulted from this enthusiasm.

In fact, I suspect many of their managers might have been mislead, just as I was, into thinking that they were making all kinds of valuable contributions with their discretionary effort, when it was all just talk.

The Proof of the Pudding This, as they say, is in the eating. So when we are talking about people 'being engaged' I think it's really important to identify how you would know if they were engaged and, equally, how you would know if they were not.

It's perfectly OK to define 'employee engagement' in terms of attendance and turnover rates if that's what's important to you at this point in your organization.

Defining it in terms of 'enthusiasm' is very tempting and can easily be misleading. If you are tempted to do this I would urge you to think carefully about the concrete evidence you would have in the long term of people's 'enthusiasm'.

Getting Engagement Generally, getting people to be engaged comes down to managers having basic management skills rather any magic wand-waving solutions. Beware anyone who suggests otherwise.

If you think you have problems with engagement, define what you mean and then check your level of basic management skills before you do anything else and make sure it includes measurable, tangible benefits.

About the Author

Nancy Slessenger has authored over a dozen booklets including the best-selling 'How to Write Objectives That Work'. Her company Vinehouse provides materials and consultancy for those wishing to improve the performance of their people in practical, straightforward ways. She believes that there are simple easy things all managers can do to improve the performance of their people. She has worked with many companies both in the profit and not for profit sectors.

Nancy Slessenger