Driving Employee Engagement

| 8 min read

Often people ask this very important question: What makes one organisation more successful than the other – is it superior products, services, strategies, or technologies?  The truth is that all of these contribute to the success and performance of A-listed companies, but the fact also remains that all of the above stated attributes will have no basis without one crucial element – people, employees, and workforce.

They create sustainable competitive advantage, and therefore, Return on Investment (ROI), company value and long-term strength. Research has shown that employees who are engaged significantly outperform work groups that are not engaged – thus a correlation between engagement and performance.

Employee engagement is a business’ backbone. It is the result of the psychological contract plus the experience that exists between an employee and the employer; the foundation of which is respect, trust, and performance. Over the years, most organisations have not factored this into performance management or just undertake it once a while because it has become a modern day fad.

It must however be noted that engagement is dynamic; it changes over the course of an employee’s tenure at the workplace and overall career as a consequence of multiple events and factors. Again, engagement is intrinsic and individual and so must be tailored to the segments of employees or individual preferences. This will require the employee’s voluntary connection to the business and to its purpose; which includes an emotional component to the workplace in order to achieve desired outcomes.

Thus, even though employee engagement entails an emotional connection, it also involves a rational component as the employee decides whether or not to be engaged, given his or her individual circumstances. An engaged employee is aware of the business context, and thus works with colleagues to improve performance within the job.

Research by Gallup, the American research-based global performance-management consulting company, describes engaged employees as being psychologically committed to a job, and likely to be making positive contributions to an organisation.

The story is told of a janitor who worked at the NASA. When he was asked what he was doing, he replied, “I am helping to put a man on the moon.” This is an employee who realized that despite his position as janitor, he was making meaningful contribution towards the success of the business. This is what happens when people are engaged – they feel a sense of belonging and purpose and intrinsically contribute to business goals.

To this end, organisations must be interested and must play a fundamental role in encouraging employees to grow both personally and professionally. This should be continuously motivated to broaden employee horizons and assist them to fulfil their potential through exposure to a wide and varied range of learning and development opportunities, defined by the business, and evaluated at regular intervals.

What drives employee engagement?

Like every human endeavor, employee engagement does not just happen. It must be a conscious lifestyle embedded in the culture of organisations who wish to be relevant in a dynamic and competitive environment. According to MacLeod report there are four  (4) ‘broad enablers/drivers’ critical to gaining employee engagement. These are strategic leadership, engaging managers, employee voice and integrity.

1. Strategic Leadership: ‘a strong narrative that provides a clear, shared vision for the organisation is at the heart of employee engagement. Employees need to understand not only the purpose of the organisation they work for but also how their individual role contributes to that vision.’

It has been established that employees who have a clear understanding of how their roles align to organisational objectives put forth a third more discretionary effort. So in order to drive engagement and improve employees’ connection to the organisation, it is vital that we do not just encourage managers to explain that connection but enable employees to help each other understand how goals and roles set by the organisation translate into day-to-day work.

2. Engaging Managers: ‘engaging managers offer clarity for what is expected from individual members of staff, which involves some stretch and much appreciation and training…..treat their people as individuals, with fairness and respect and with a concern for employee’s well-being….. (and) have a very important role in ensuring that work is designed efficiently and effectively.’

The presence of engaging leaders or line managers is an important driver of engagement and this goes beyond job titles. The interpretation of an engaging leader or line manager, in this context, is someone who drives people to a common purpose and brings confidence to a team.

Engaging managers are the life blood of the engagement process. Top management visibility could be employed to prop up the process of employee engagement. This could be in the form of encouraging senior managers to ‘walk the floor’ and provide regular updates on the organisation’s strategic progress through corporate communication channels.

3. Employee voice: ‘an effective and empowered employee voice – employees’ views are sought out; they are listened to and see that their opinions count and make a difference. They speak out and challenge when appropriate. A strong sense of listening and responsiveness permeates the organisation, enabled by effective communication.’

The views of employees must be sought and factored into decisions. Employees must be able to make contributions and criticize when appropriate without any victimisation at the workplace. Top management must ensure that there is a symmetrical (two- way) flow of information and steps must be put in place to ensure not just the “pushing” of information to employees but also the “pulling” of information.

Research has shown that more than two-thirds of employees lack opportunities to contribute to the success of their organisation. Management should ensure that employees select and own initiatives for improving organisational performance.

4. Integrity: ‘Most organisations have espoused values and all have behavioural norms. Where there is a gap between the two, the size of the gap is reflected in the degree of distrust within the organisation; if the gap is closed, high levels of trust usually result. If an employee sees the stated values of the organisation being lived by the leadership and colleagues, a sense of trust in the organisation is more likely to be developed and this constitutes a powerful enabler of engagement.’

It has been established that in organisations where the actions of senior leaders support fairness, trust, respect for management and employees, teamwork and cooperation, there is a high level of engagement and a sense of affinity towards the organisation. This means there should be consistency in what is said and what is done.

In addition to this , another driver which is also crucial to employee engagement but not readily captured in the MacLeod report is Recognition and Appreciation. This is when employees are made to feel valued and their contributions are acknowledged by the organisation. Recognition could also mean that leaders notice the often unnoticed things that employees do to make their organisations successful.

For every organisation which seeks to build a strong base for its employee engagement drive in order to remain competitive in an ever changing business setting, these drivers of employee engagement is not a last resort but a first response. It does not require complex or expensive investment in new ways of working but it does need wholehearted support of senior managers through their leadership and strategic vision and through the enactment of line managers.

Having stated the factors that drive employee engagement, it must be noted that a number of factors cripple employee engagement. These include:

  • Line managers not being equipped with the relevant skills,
  • Organisational complexity – one engagement initiative may not fit all,
  • Communication – many organisations struggle to get the right message to the right individual at the right time,
  • Lack of buy-in and support from senior leadership.

In concluding, it has been established that gaining employee commitment and attachment has positive benefits for the organisation and the employees themselves. Engagement therefore comes about when people care about doing a good job and care about what the organisation is trying to achieve and how it goes about doing it. This caring attitude and behaviour comes about when people get satisfaction from the jobs they do, work effectively, and believe that the organisation supports them to.

Additionally, it is important for human resource managers and leadership to understand that each organisation or team is unique. Therefore making it necessary for them to know which drivers of engagement are most important to their people at any given time, and more importantly, which of these top drivers represent weaknesses in the eyes of their people so they can take action.

With the calibre of talent available to organisations and companies, it is critical to continually develop employees’ talent and engagement levels. If done correctly, these engagement levels can result in employees offering exceptional service to clients and the organisation.

Lebo Tseladimitlwa, Vice President of Human Resources at DHL Express Sub Saharan Africa, notes that effective employee engagement policies which have the involvement of management can drive innovation, productivity and bottom-line performance, and should be utilized to counter adverse market conditions.


Jide Otoki