The Why (and How) of Employee Engagement

It’s time to treat engagement as a strategic priority, said Kevin Kruse, entrepreneur and CEO of Kru Research and co-author, along with Rudy Karsan, of We: How to Increase Performance and Profits Through Full Engagement.

That means applying the same rigor and analysis to engagement as we would any other area of management by measuring its success, holding leaders accountable and examining employees’ motivation at work.

In a conversation with Talent Management magazine, Kruse shared what’s wrong with engagement efforts today and how talent managers can help.

What’s the problem with engagement efforts today?
When a company feels it has an engagement issue or a retention issue, it becomes an HR department-driven effort. There will be a survey, there will be some training, there might be some lunch-and-learns around the topic, but at the end of the day it’s really not tied in as a strategic priority.

Engagement results will move when it’s not just a poster, when it’s not just a line in the annual report, when you say, “Manager, you’re going to be a leader of people, not just a leader of tasks. I’m going to measure you on it, I’m going to compensate you for it and I’m going to kick you out if you’re not doing it.”

How are today’s employee engagement drivers different than in years past?
Overall I don’t think the drivers of engagement have changed that much. Growth, recognition and trust tend to be the big drivers. How you trigger growth might vary from country to country or industry to industry, but in general people want to feel they are advancing and learning new things, that they are progressing. They want some recognition. They want to know that they count. They need to be able to trust their leader but also trust in the future.

Those are the evergreens in engagement. In the last couple of years, the challenge is with cutbacks. We’re all asked to do more with less, [and] we’re all managing more people than we did a few years ago. People who might have managed six people on a team now are managing 12. It’s harder to be a leader of people when you’re juggling being a manager of tasks. That’s the part that has changed.

In your book, you talk about the new work-life blend. What is the new blend and how do you see that impacting employee engagement?
The work-life balance movement has hurt our workers. That is a crime. The whole work-life balance movement is based on the idea that if we limit hours [and] stop BlackBerry checks at 10 o’clock at night or on the weekend, we will improve quality of life and increase engagement. We just don’t see that.

Sometimes the most engaged workers are the ones that work through their lunch, are the ones that show up early. They’re champing at the bit, waiting to tackle that project. Engagement and hours worked — we don’t think there’s a big correlation there. In addition, many times in the spirit of work-life balance you can actually increase stress. Some people will feel better if they can do a five-minute email check in the morning and then relax.

We’re not saying it has to be work all the time. It has to go from work-life balance to a work-life blend. Just as you might want to do a BlackBerry check on a Saturday at 10 o’clock, we also suggest that it should be increasingly OK to leave the office at 4 o’clock to watch your kid’s baseball game.

The old saying is if you have a bad day [at work], you go home and you kick the dog. With the crossover effect, they’ve discovered that your spouse feels as much stress as you do from your job. The real saying is when you have a bad day at work, you go home and your spouse kicks the dog. Find a way to blend family life with work life. It’s just life. Pick a career you enjoy, pick a career you’re passionate about, and then realize that you’ve got to blend the personal stuff with the professional stuff.

What can leaders and the talent managers supporting them do to address today’s engagement problems?
Take employee engagement seriously. That means measuring it to the manager level. That means training and supporting and coaching managers with a model that is realistic. Any list that’s got more than three items in it, I’m likely not going to remember.

If you can only remember three things, think about growth, recognition and trust. Measure it so you know what the engagement issues are in your company and for the individual manager. Maybe it’s not growth, recognition and trust for your particular company or your specific front-line leader. That’s fine, but boil it down. Give them three things to work on. But more important than the how we drive engagement, is the why.

The real why of engagement is not just about company profits. It’s about what you do on a day-to-day basis to impact the health of those who report to you. It’s impacting the relationships and the families of those who report to you. I never hear this in the talk about engagement. People talk about getting a five-times-higher stock price, [and] you want to engage your people so they don’t go to the competition. Those are good reasons, but I forget those reasons when I show up at work and I have a full calendar and 100 emails and reports to do.

What’s going to touch me, what’s going to motivate me, is when I look at that direct report. I see Jane there and I see her husband and I see her kids. What I do and say on a day-to-day basis is impacting Jane and her family. That’s going to help me be engagement-oriented on a day-to-day basis.