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What Too Many CHROs Get Wrong About Employee Engagement

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It’s a difficult moment to be an HR leader. A new report on organizational resilience from the SHRM Research and Gap International found more than one in three organizations experienced a decline in organizational performance and/or employee wellbeing during the past two years. Earlier this year, a report found employee engagement decreased year-over-year for the first time in a decade.

Perhaps your internal engagement reports revealed a similar decline. Or maybe you’ve read about the Great Resignation and worry even your engaged employees might look for work elsewhere. Your CEO may have asked you to update your human capital strategy to increase your engagement score. I’ve spent decades as an HR executive at some of the world’s leading companies; I’ve been in this position before. And I know that if you’re going to improve that all-important number, you must start by acknowledging the messy realities behind what engagement isn’t and what it is.

Employee engagement isn’t a primary metric, it’s an outcome

No matter how bad your company’s engagement score is, none of your employees came to work today and thought to themselves, “I’m just not feeling engaged.” That’s because an employee’s engagement is based on dozens of factors that can fluctuate without warning. Do they get along with their coworkers? Have they received recognition lately? Do they care about the organization’s mission? If you’re overly focused on your employee engagement score, you could end up trying to treat the symptoms instead of the disease. You can’t use one new initiative to paper over multiple smaller systemic issues.

Employee engagement isn’t a light switch

When measuring employee engagement, you aren’t checking to see if a light switch is in the on position. If you’ve ever managed someone, you know engagement isn’t that simple because jobs aren’t that simple. Most positions are a bundle of responsibilities, and most people like some parts of their jobs more than others. When you ask someone if they’re engaged with their work, what you’re really doing is seeing if the parts of the job they like outweigh the parts they don’t. It’s better to think of engagement as a dimmer switch. An employee’s light can grow brighter or dimmer, but it’s your job to keep the power on.

Employee engagement isn’t universal

Plenty of ink has been spilled proposing magic wand solutions to employee engagement. Employees need opportunities for personal growth! No, they need to believe in the organization’s mission! No, they need to feel trusted! These theories always sound reasonable, but they fall short because they don’t acknowledge that engagement takes many forms. If your engagement strategy is too narrow, you leave out employees who are motivated differently. On the other hand, if your strategy is too broad, you may waste resources on initiatives that won’t motivate some employees while not doing enough to reach workers who would be affected by deeper commitments.

Employee engagement is personal

If employee engagement is so particular, incremental and situational, is it even achievable at an organization-wide scale? Absolutely. But you must stop looking for a single answer and start empowering your organization to find many answers. What does an employee need to feel engaged? Try asking them – not in an impersonal, anonymous form where their preferences will be aggregated with everyone else’s, but in one-on-one conversations with someone who can affect change in that employee’s day-to-day life. Recognize that some employees may not be able to precisely verbalize what they need or feel uncomfortable being critical with a supervisor. Instead of putting the burden on workers to explain why they aren’t more engaged, train managers to use empathy and intuition to spot areas where an employee’s needs aren’t being met.

Engagement is complex

This doesn’t mean engagement data isn’t meaningful or that company-wide initiatives are inefficient. But systemic changes may require more sophisticated analysis than just ranking organizational characteristics on a seven-point scale. Once you’ve identified a problem in your organization, it’s worth continuing to dig deeper. Part of that process will be quantitative, such as asking what employees with that issue have in common. But you may need qualitative analysis as well. Ultimately, you need to understand the stories your workers tell themselves about their work.

Engagement is a challenge we all share

There’s an old saying that a burden shared is a burden halved. At SHRM, we’re committed to creating better workplaces for everyone, and I’ve seen the amazing things that can happen when CHROs get together and compare notes. HR leaders need a deep network to help them find innovative solutions. A company in a different industry may have struggled with the same challenge you’re currently facing but approached it from an angle you’ve never considered. Stay connected to your peers and be willing to learn from others’ success.

 A recent SHRM Research survey found that 42% of HR leaders don’t frequently discuss current HR issues with an external network of leaders. If you’re looking to connect with peers to share their knowledge and expertise, the SHRM Executive Network offers access to an elite community of HR leaders who get access to exclusive data, community discussions, networking, special events and more.


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