The key to the most dynamic component of employee engagement has been there all along— undiscovered—hiding in plain sight.
Employee engagement is generally defined as having employees who are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace. In the last decade, endless research studies have been conducted, articles written, and YouTube videos recorded to clarify what companies need to do to develop an engaged workforce. Unfortunately, the message sent is often incredibly complex. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, it is easy to be complex—to be simple is very difficult. We need a simple explanation of the element that determines whether your employees are engaged.
The nucleus of control, the determinant that propels employee engagement, lies within the supervisor-employee relationship. More often than not, positive supervisor-employee relationships are absent in the workplace. For five decades my colleagues and I have attempted to change organizational cultures to positive management cultures; cultures where management influences employee performance (job behavior) by giving positive recognition for any behavior that ensures quality, safety, and helps the product, process, customer service or customer satisfaction.
In 2012, Gallup performed a meta-analysis using 263 research studies across 192 organizations in 49 industries and 34 countries. Researchers studied 49,928 business/work units, including nearly 1.4 million employees. Gallup’s State of the American Manager document clarifies the role that all levels of management play in the financial losses created by both management and employee disengagement. It confirmed the well-established connection between employee engagement and nine performance outcomes:
- Customer ratings
- Turnover (for high and low-turnover organizations)
- Safety incidents
- Shrinkage (theft)
- Patient safety incidents
- Quality (defects)
The key to successfully implementing and sustaining a strong employee-engagement culture
Many years ago, we used the term positive reinforcement, and defined it as saying something positive when you saw an employee do something (any behavior) that added value to the process, product, or overall performance. The definition of positive reinforcement seemed to confuse leaders into thinking we wanted them to “be nice” to their employees, “pay them compliments,” or “praise” them for doing something grand and great. Now we speak of positive reinforcement as a “relationship,” not a “dramatic verbal or symbolic act.”
A Harris Poll of 2,058 U.S. adults—consisting of both employees and managers—showed that a majority (60%) of the managers said they’re often uncomfortable communicating with employees. Over a third (37%) said they’re uncomfortable having to give direct feedback about their employees’ performance if they think the employee might respond negatively to the feedback. The survey results also showed that many managers are uncomfortable with becoming vulnerable, recognizing achievements, and delivering clear directions.
Gallup has interviewed or surveyed over 31 million adults in the last two decades about the American work culture. Within the last few years, they have interviewed thousands regarding “employee engagement” topics. In so doing, they have collected some statistically significant information that senior leadership and frontline supervisors should find interesting. The information corroborates the work Behavioral Consultants have for decades attempted to integrate into the corporate cultures of business and industry. Through Gallup’s thousands of surveys and interviews we have found some interesting facts about leadership behaviors—the behaviors that are essential to achieve employee engagement—including the following:
- Consistent communication between employee and supervisor— whether it occurs in person, over the phone, or electronically—is connected to higher engagement.
- Engagement is highest among employees who have some form (face-to-face, phone, or electronic) of daily communication with their manager.
- Managers who want to build stronger relationships with their employees should make regular meetings a priority, but they should also strive to communicate, in some way, with each team member every day.
- The best managers make a concentrated effort to get to know their employees and help them feel comfortable talking about any subject, whether it is work-related or not.
- Clarity of expectations is perhaps the most basic of employee needs and is vital to performance.
The summation of all their data and my work in hundreds of operations across the globe supports the clear, dramatically important reality: The key to successfully implementing and sustaining a strong employee-engagement culture is understanding, accepting and strengthen the relationship between each employee and his/her supervisor.
By Jerry Pounds, President, International Division, Quality Safety Edge