Misfiring on the rules of engagement

Leaders know what engages staff, but aren’t following through: survey
By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/10/2007

“Employee engagement.” The phrase is often used to describe employees who are driven by a commitment to the job, a desire to do the best and a belief the work matters.

Engagement may be what employers say they’re after, but do they know how to foster it? And, if they do, how well are they able to create a work environment that builds engagement? Do they know what’s important in fostering engagement?

According to

How Much and How Important? An Executive View of Employee Engagement Factors,

a recent study jointly conducted by WarrenShepell and

Canadian HR Reporter

, the picture is rather mixed.

Leaders of organizations, especially those in HR, have a pretty good idea of what’s important and what’s not as drivers of engagement. They understand pay and perks don’t go as far as less tangible aspects such as trust, workload and control. And yet, as they acknowledged in the survey, the aspects of organizational life that are most important are the very aspects most missing at companies.

“If you think about things like trust, like whether people’s opinions matter, whether people have a clear vision, whether they get appropriately praised, whether they’re in control of decisions — those are important, but they’re harder to measure,” said Rod Phillips, president and CEO of WarrenShepell, the Toronto-headquartered employee assistance program provider and co-sponsor of the study.

The ‘super seven’

He said one of the main values of the study is its ability to pinpoint seven workplace characteristics that are most associated with employee mental health, satisfaction and retention. These so-called “super seven” are:

•employees trust senior management;

•employees are asked for ideas and opinions on important matters;

•employees clearly understand the organization’s vision and strategic direction;

•employees trust their supervisors;

•employees receive recognition and praise for good work;

•employees have a clear say in decisions that affect their work; and

•employees perceive supervisors as caring and considerate of their well-being.

The study, conducted between mid-2005 and early this year, consisted of an online survey of more than 300 leaders. Two in three respondents were HR leaders; the rest were either organizational heads or leaders from other functions.

The survey examined 40 workplace characteristics, asking respondents to assess to what extent each characteristic was present in the workplace. The survey then asked leaders to assess the importance of each characteristic.

Participants were then asked about the presence or absence of specific HR practices and policies. They were also asked to assess employee mental health at their organizations — the extent to which they feel stressed, anxious, burned out or, conversely, confident in their ability to do a good job.

Based on survey responses, HR leaders from 10 organizations were further interviewed about practices at their organizations that contribute to engagement. The organizations were selected for the presence of positive workplace characteristics, levels of positive mental health and employee satisfaction, as well as levels of employee retention. (This first two case studies can be found




. Another two will be included in the next issue.)

Asked why the survey went to organizational leaders and not the employees to measure their assessment of the engagement drivers, WarrenShepell director of research Paul Fairlie said asking leaders to answer on the part of employees “enabled us to consider the similarities and differences between leaders’ and employees’ perceptions of engagement in their workplaces.” The latter are found in existing studies, he added.

“We were struck by how closely leader perceptions mirrored those often reported by employees. Even the pattern of relationships among workplace factors, mental health, satisfaction, and turnover were of the same direction and magnitude that you find in academic research based on employee responses. It’s almost eerie.”

In one of its main findings, the study showed workplace characteristics can be grouped into two categories: extrinsically rewarding and intrinsically rewarding. The former is comprised of things such as pay, vacation time and ergonomic equipment. The latter includes things like trust, meaningful work and personal growth.

It’s these latter characteristics that contribute more to employee mental health. Pay and perks matter, but their correlations with mental health scores are roughly half that of the correlations between intrinsically rewarding characteristics and mental health.

In other words, while well-adjusted a workforce is likely to have both intrinsically and extrinsically rewarding characteristics, the most well-adjusted workforce is likely to have a greater presence of intrinsically rewarding characteristics, the study noted.

However, the characteristics that tend to score higher in terms of prevalence are extrinsically rewarding aspects such as pay, vacation time and ergonomic environment.

What ought to be versus what is

The leaders responding to the survey seem to be well aware of the higher impact of things like trust, meaningful work and personal growth. However, juxtaposing responses on impact against responses on prevalence — the extent to which a characteristic is important versus the extent to which it’s present in the workplace — reveals discrepancies between what is and what ought to be.

Of 37 workplace characteristics measured, only five were present at levels that matched or exceeded their perceived impact. These were:

•opportunities for employees to interact and get to know one another;

•feeling physically safe in the workplace;

•a fair amount of vacation time;

•competitive benefits packages; and

•emotional support in times of difficulty.

Of the remaining workplace characteristics that weren’t prevalent to the same degree as they were perceived to be important, the top five were aspects intrinsic to the job — in other words, the characteristics that matter. They included:

•the level of negative interactions with co-workers and customers;

•trust in senior management;

•a clear understanding of the organization’s vision and strategic direction;

•a clear understanding of how they contribute to the overall goals of the organization; and

•trust in supervisors.

These things take more time to do right, whereas it’s easier to try to fix engagement by increasing the level of pay or enhancing benefits, said Phillips.

“Most of the organizations in Canada are built around financial metrics, and what gets measured gets paid attention to and ultimately gets done,” he said. “So there’s a fair amount of work around compensation and the relationship between compensation and performance, but not so much around the other factors, because they’re harder to measure.”

In numbers

Where the gaps are

The study

How much and how important? An Executive View of Employee Engagement Factors

, looked at discrepancies between the presence of workplace characteristics and their impact on engagement.

The characteristics with some of the greatest discrepancies are the level of negative interactions, trust in senior management, clear understanding of the organization’s vision, an understanding of how employees contribute to the organization’s overall goals and trust in supervisors.

Below are the participants’ answers:

To what extent do employees have trust in senior management?

a) No, little or some extent: 27.4 per cent

b) A moderate extent: 35.3 per cent

c) A large or a very large extent: 37.3 per cent

To what extent do employees clearly understand the organization's vision and strategic direction?

a) No, little or some extent: 33.7 per cent

b) A moderate extent: 33.3 per cent

c) A large or very large extent: 33 per cent

To what extent do employees understand how they contribute to the overall goals of the organization?

a) No, little or some extent: 26.3 per cent

b) A moderate extent: 37.6 per cent

c) A large or very large extent: 36.1 per cent

To what extent do employees trust their supervisors?

a) No, little or some extent: 17 per cent

b) A moderate extent: 40.5 per cent

c) A large or very large extent: 42.4 per cent

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