Employee Engagement from the bottom up is the way forward

A few days ago, I decided to do a clean out of some old materials that had built up in my storage space.  While doing this, I chanced upon a copy of my Masters Thesis. During this, I studied the impact of various interventions. Interventions on career decision-making self-efficacy and achievement motivation among unemployed young people and their ability to find sustainable employment or training. It was the beginning of my contention that employee engagement from the bottom up is the way forward.

It is an interesting feeling to discover something that you realise is one of the building blocks upon which your views, beliefs, and principles are based.  This review of my early studies got me thinking about the links between that work with a large group of unemployed young people living in an area of social and economic deprivation and the work I do now.  I recalled how self-efficacy became more positive when a young person received individualized support and feedback.  Better than the usual classroom-based ‘job search’ approach.  Those with positive self-efficacy were also more likely to undertake other activities. These activities led to a sense of belonging and contribution to their local community.

An individualised approach to employee engagement

And, now, here I am advocating an individualized approach to employee engagement.  An approach whereby we seek to build employee engagement from the bottom up.  This involved starting at an individual level upwards. Those employees receive individualized feedback on their engagement levels. They are supported in action planning to address their disengagers.  We found these employees are more likely to learn to amend learned behaviours and perceptions and build a positive efficacy in their organization.

Why Top-Down Only Engagement Strategies Will Under Achieve

I would never suggest that senior management within an organization should not plan top-down strategies. These strategies help to create a suitable environment. They can highlight the responsibilities of managers in building engagement.  I do, however, urge careful consideration of the limitations of top-down strategies when it comes to engaging employees.

The main problem with a corporate top-down only employee engagement strategy is that they are usually designed to encompass the organization and address the key issues highlighted in the annual engagement survey report.  This description highlights several key problems:

Key problems

    1. The key issues highlighted across the organization may not be the key issues affecting a particular team or employee
    2. Responses to the annual survey are generally broad approaches, intended to be fair to all, but not touching your disengaged population
    3. These responses also tend to speak more to employees who are already engaged
    4. An annual engagement survey is too distant from employees and the experiences they have throughout the year. Accuracy is, therefore, an issue.  Pulse surveying is more accurate.
    5. Top-down strategies tend to connect only with already engaged employees and potentially further isolate the disengaged
    6. They don’t prompt reflection among individual employees nor raise awareness and need to amend their behaviour

Picture the scene.  A talented but disengaged employee receives the communication that the results of the annual employee engagement survey have been received. The company has designed a new programme of events and activities to raise engagement among employees.  Now, picture the disengaged employee’s immediate reaction.  How do you think s/he reacts?  A fist pumped into the air, an exhalation of breath in sheer relief and joy that his/her disengaged days are numbered?  Or, a shrug of the shoulders and a sigh of frustration accompanied by the thought “Here they go again.  Yet another damp squib.”?  Most likely the latter, but why is this?

Engagement/Disengagement is a Personal Experience

The key reason is that (dis)engagement is a hugely personal experience.  It is not something that can be effectively dealt with by a broad sweeping employee engagement strategy delivered top-down to cover the whole organization.  Each employee will experience the workplace differently.  Each will perceive the events based on their own experiences to date and on their values and beliefs.

I recall a situation where I was speaking to several disengaged members of the same team.  There were clear issues and problems at play within the team that could be immediately seen.  However, on speaking to the team members it was clear that each person was disengaged for a different reason(s).  For one, it was the lack of clear communication and direction on work tasks.  In another case, it was the ‘fact’, as he perceived it, that his career had come to a shuddering halt and he felt it was now in reverse and that career recovery was going to be a huge challenge.  For the third person, it was a lack of openness, honesty, and respect with the manager and a colleague continually whispering in corners.

There were obvious and significant problems in this team, that is pretty clear and the same conditions were in place for all team members.  Yet, each team member interpreted them
differently.  Each person was prioritising what was important to him/her – respect, career enhancement, communication etc.  If this is happening, how can a broad approach hope to make a significant impact on engagement levels?

Bottom-Up Engagement Starts With the Individual

Employee engagement is an individual experience. Driven partly by personal values and what is important to us in a job.  The solution must also be personalised.  It is important that the individual employee receives personalised feedback on what is driving his/her (dis)engagement and has an opportunity to do something about it.  With awareness comes the opportunity for change.

By individualizing feedback, the employee is prompted to reflect on his/her own (dis)engagement and what is driving it.  Supported action planning can enhance this process.  This individualized supportive approach also helps to shape the employee’s motivation to re-engage.  As with the unemployed youth, this motivation must be sustainable – ie not solely based on leaderboards and competition.  Again, supported action planning and opportunities to collaborate and communicate can assist the employee to focus on motivators like excellence, mastery and work ethic.  The key is enabling the employee to focus on being the best employee/he can be.

The disengaged employee must get the opportunity to replace some of the disengaging experiences with new positive experiences.  This can include clear opportunities to contribute to the organization and collaborate on problem-solving, decision making and projects.  This approach can give the employee a voice and a forum to contribute.

This sounds like a difficult, time and resource-intensive process, but it isn’t.  Technology has provided a selection of employee engagement software platforms that will ease this process, even making it quite straightforward and attractively priced.

Engagement starts with the individual employees within the team.  This provides an upward momentum.  As employees re-engage, their contribution and performance will increase positively affecting the team’s performance.  It also puts positive pressure on the team leader to adapt and facilitate, which should be supported by a top-down strategy focusing on leadership development.

Developing Your Leaders

I did say earlier that the top-down strategy should be maintained. Even if it isn’t the whole solution.  The findings from pulse surveys etc must be used to target training and coaching for leaders.  The effectiveness of this approach can be vastly improved if the survey results can be mapped to the organization. In this way, an accurate picture of team and manager-specific interventions can be drawn.  It is an accepted truth of employee engagement that the direct line manager is the most significant influence on engagement.  So, it stands to reason that a significant focus of the employee engagement strategy rests on developing the required skills in leaders and line managers.

Cultivate the Ground for the Seeds of Engagement

However, equipping the line manager with targeted development is not necessarily enough, especially if team members are already disengaged.  There has to be awareness raised on both sides and responsibility for change on both sides.  The individual employee needs to be given the tools, techniques, and resilience to recognize the need for change and to adapt to it.  S/he needs to be empowered to consider their own (dis)engagement drivers and to choose how to deal with these.

Most organizations are investing a lot of time and resources in addressing engagement purely from a top-down perspective.  To use an analogy, a farmer prepares the ground before sowing the seeds to grow crops.  Organizations also need to cultivate the ground to be more receptive to the seeds of engagement.  This is how you maximize the return on investment in employee engagement strategies.

You must enable and empower your employees to decide not to shrug their shoulders at corporate efforts to re-engage them but to consider the strategy and choose to see the good intentions and decide “You know what, there might just be something good for me in there so I will give it a go.”

Just as it was in my work with unemployed youth, employee engagement is not about motivation through leaderboards and competition.  This helps to add fun when an employee is engaged.  Employee engagement is about motivation through the satisfaction of understanding your workplace and your employer and being self-aware so you know when you have mastered your ability and deliver it at work.

What are you doing to cultivate the ground level in your organization and enable individual employees to master their ability and deliver this regularly?

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Nigel McPolin is an Occupational Psychologist with over 20 years experience, Founder & CEO of Etimes2 Ltd, and Thought Leader in employee engagement.