Role of engagement underappreciated (Guest commentary)

Winning hearts and minds of employees rarely considered in planning

Lost in the discussion of the war for talent is perhaps the larger and more pivotal issue of winning the hearts and minds of the rank and file.

While attracting top performers to senior and specialized industry jobs is a fundamental need, the long-term success of a business and its ability to retain star assets, particularly when challenged by new and powerful market entrants, is contingent upon a highly motivated and engaged employee workforce.

A study published in 2004 exploring more than 60 leading corporations around the globe found a highly engaged workforce regularly delivers a 20-per-cent better rate of productivity than those in businesses that had not invested in this relationship — a huge competitive advantage for companies willing to invest in a comprehensive and robust program to improve engagement.

But a philosophy of engagement that only exists in the objectives of the HR function and does not transcend each manager will fall well short of the goal. There are many examples of organizations, large and small, that have successfully implemented employee engagement strategies that form a core pillar of company values.

Beyond Wal-Mart’s well-documented approach to cost management and supplier relationships, likely the most crucial advantage the retailer enjoys is a disciplined and consistent approach to building relationships with employees. When managers are assessed in the Wal-Mart world, their people-management performance receives equal billing with all other key performance indicators.

5 ways to achieve optimum engagement

Analysis: Selecting the right instrument to measure the current state of employee engagement is crucial. As this approach is based on substantial accumulated research, organizations must resist the urge to modify and amend the questions. Significant adjustments will water down the usefulness of the data and negate the ability to benchmark industry data. Equally important is developing a plan to address the findings of the survey, to demonstrate the organization’s willingness and ability to improve in the short term, and address the medium- to long-term behavioural shift required.

Vision versus project: Although engagement is often referred to as a project or objective, the change required for sustained improvement in employee engagement must become a foundation of company culture and prevail in each internal relationship. If the assessment reveals a significant gap, the journey will be longer and the resolve of leadership necessarily determined — accountability for dynamics of organizational behaviour must rest with all key opinion leaders.

Communication: The cornerstone of a fully engaged workforce is meaningful and systemic dialogue between the organization and employees. Most organizations make a reasonable effort to deliver information to employees but, to achieve world-class engagement, employers should create opportunities for employees to regularly voice opinions and contribute to the decision-making process. Employers will also benefit from the front-line experience gleaned from the customer.

Representation and opportunity: Engagement is enhanced by employees having a seat at the table who assist in plotting their own futures and the future of their enterprise. Building systems to allow for these partnerships to grow will depend on the size, complexity and structure of the company, but engaged employees are those who are confident both their regular and over-and-above contributions will be recognized and provide opportunity for professional growth.

Leadership and trust: While the success of an engagement strategy is contingent on universal acceptance, clearly the tone is set by leadership. The extent to which employees trust and feel they have achieved personal relationships or connections with enterprise leaders will determine the degree of cultural implementation. Leaders of engaged companies inspire, instil confidence, empower, encourage discourse and demonstrate concern for employees’ health and well-being.

Paul Mansbridge, a New Brunswick-based senior HR practitioner, can be reached at [email protected].

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