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There are only three measurements that tell you nearly everything you need to know about your organization’s overall performance: employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and cash flow. – Jack Welch

Almost everyone is in a perpetual quest to identify ‘engaged’ employees. Leaders want them so they can deliver results, HR wants them so leaders can deliver results, Team managers want them on their teams so they can meet targets and leaders can deliver results, Team members want them because … you get the picture.

Surely these rare creatures walk among us. So how does one identify those employees who are truly engaged – separate the wheat from the chaff metaphorically speaking.

Popular notion (fueled by stock images) would have you believe that these engaged folks are typically found jumping with joy, their cubicles buzzing with energy, lots of activity happening all the time and performance graphs are zooming so high they are breaking out of the monitor screens.

Er…

Okay let’s get a little realistic shall we. Even if all the above were to happen (which in any normal office is a little impractical) they only demonstrate (some of) the (possible) outcomes of engagement. And again let’s not get activity confused with results. You could have an office with people rushing around, talking, phones ringing and that would mean absolutely nothing in terms of actual positive outcomes for employees or customers.

Engagement, like human beings, is a complex phenomenon. At a basic level it is often referred to as the individual’s sense of purpose and focused energy towards achieving goals. Now those goals can easily be the wrong ones – like personal enrichment and glory at the cost of the organization and shareholders (like what happened in the 2008 financial crisis and happens in companies large and small every single day today as well).

So those very experts have added an additional qualification to the goals being pursued by stating them to be ‘organizational goals’

Okay so now we say engagement is an “the individual’s sense of purpose and focused energy towards achieving organizational goals.” This seems like a decent enough working definition of something that is as fuzzy as engagement but since we aren’t mind readers and psychics (officially at least) it still doesn’t quite help us identify what an engaged person looks like and how she behaves.

Those who watch too many movies (especially the facebook) often come back with the notion of ‘being in the zone’. Headphones on, steely look in the eyes, tapping away at the keyboard, creating world changing magic.

Again, Er.. yeah. Deep Breath. Coming back to reality.

You see, there are two aspects to engagement – the first is what the employee herself feels and the second is what others see or perceive in her behavior at work – often reason behind the much hated ‘attitude problem’ standoff in appraisal ratings.

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Employee engagement can be cognitive, emotional, physical or some combination of these three.

Cognitive Engagement defines the ‘degree’ or extent to which the employee is able to focus on her work. Her ability to stave off distractions from the task on hand is derived from her involvement in the job and her motivation levels.

Emotional Engagement goes a step further and defines the extent to which the employee is engrossed in the work on hand. This is the state when employees feel like they are in the ‘zone’ or to use the term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – in the state of flow.

Both of these aspects are largely internal to the employee. They represent the ‘psychic energy’ that drives the person to deliver outcomes beyond the ordinary. These states are enabled when there is clarity of goals, a sense of urgency about the goal and the person is putting in focused effort at achieving those goals. States like the ‘zone’ and ‘flow’ are not normal. In reality they represent brief periods of intense focus that come along once in a while though people love to fantasize about being in the state.

Engagement however is does not just manifest internally to the person. Engaged employees will naturally display some behavioral traits as well that make them stand apart from the crowd.

Physical Engagement manifests itself as the extent to which the employee is willing to ‘go the extra mile’ for the customers, colleagues and even for their own selves. These employees will go out of their ‘job description’ boundaries to help customers, help colleagues to solve problems even when they don’t have to and invest in their own upskilling to perform better. They don’t need these to be defined in their annual goal setting process, they do it on their own volition – because they want to.

Advocacy is the behavior shown by employees who are so engaged that they actively promote the organization/products/services to their friends and family. They refer people when job openings open up, they talk positively about the organization at home and among friends leading to a positive feedback loop that helps the company do better leading to more engagement.

These two forms of engagement represent the ‘behavioural‘ energy – it is what other people see in the employee. Employees who are engaged will solve problems proactively, not be restricted by job descriptions and expand their thinking to match new demands and they will persist in the face of obstacles while adapting to change.

So now we arrive at the more refined definition of what engagement is and how to spot engaged employees given by William Macey et. al.:

“Engagement is an individual’s sense of purpose and focused energy, evident to others in the display of personal initiative, adaptability, effort and persistence directed toward organizational goals

Now you know what ‘they’ look like, go find those stars*

References and Acknowledgements: 

  • The essential guide to Employee Engagement, Sarah Cook
  • Employee Engagement: Tools for Analysis, Practice, and Competitive Advantage, William H. Macey, Benjamin Schneider, Karen M. Barbera, Scott A. Young

  • Flow (psychology), Wikipedia, Accessed: 08 August, 8:30AM IST

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