To Engage Employees, Focus on the Individual

Personalization is key, report suggests

By Steve Bates Aug 27, 2014
HR professionals should encourage managers to boost employee engagement on a one-to-one basis, according to a report from the Hay Group, a management consultancy based in Philadelphia.

The report, The New Rules of Engagement, identifies trends that are changing the way that organizations should approach engagement, including the digital revolution, globalization and the environmental crisis. Focusing engagement efforts on the individual worker will be particularly challenging, engagement experts acknowledge.

“Engagement does have to be personalized,” said Teresa M. Amabile, Ph.D., a professor and research director at Harvard Business School in Boston and co-author of the book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011).

“A single message to the workforce will no longer cut it,” the Hay Group report stated. “People demand to be treated as individuals.” That requires “tapping into each employee’s needs, drivers, outlook and expectations.”

The report said that although 84 percent of engagement leaders recognize that they need to motivate their workforces differently, only 30 percent believe they are making the necessary changes.

“A lot of organizations are stuck in place and risk being caught flat-footed” by an exodus of key employees, said Mark Royal, senior principal with the Hay Group in Chicago. “The report is a call to action. The game is changing. The time to act is now.”

Royal said organizations can start by focusing “on what really matters to people. It’s not picnics and parties; it’s meaningful work and the opportunity to grow in the organization.”

He said regular surveys of employees can gauge the overall level of workers’ engagement and can help identify strategies to improve it. But companywide initiatives are no longer sufficient.

“Organizations have to make engagement a two-way street by creating the conditions that empower people to improve their own engagement,” said Royal.

“Companies often forget the individual piece,” said Mary Ann Masarech, lead consultant with the employee engagement practice at Princeton, N.J.-based consultancy BlessingWhite. “The manager role is critical.”

Getting supervisors to work with direct reports to improve engagement will take effort, particularly if managers don’t understand why this work is important and how to do it.

Said Masarech: “It should be in the manager’s best interest to talk about it. It’s not rocket science. If employees have a structure for a conversation about what’s important to the company, what’s important to the employee, what talents the employee brings and the working relationship, it’s amazing what this can accomplish.”

Amabile said her research demonstrates that employees are most engaged when they feel that they are making progress toward a work goal that is “personally meaningful,” even if that progress is slow. She said supervisors need to recognize and facilitate such gains.

“Managers need to make sure that every individual knows that what they are doing contributes to something that matters,” she said. “Managers must pay attention to the ordinary things that get in the way” of progress and should ask employees questions like ‘What do you need to make more progress in your work?’ ”

However, said Amabile, “most managers don’t pay attention to this. They don’t realize that it’s part of their job. They don’t see the role that they can play.”

“We need to set expectations for managers,” confirmed Masarech.

Royal said engagement is part of everyday business operations and should be linked to business outcomes, instead of being just something that is measured by an annual survey. Engagement should be monitored and managed though various channels, such as video messaging and social media. And engagement can be localized by giving managers the power to adjust rewards and other incentives, he said.

Masarech noted that engagement is essential to retaining the right employees. “The engaged stay for what they are giving you, and the disengaged stay for what they are getting.”

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.

Also see:

Employee Engagement: The Newest Research and Trends, SHRM Research 2014

Maintaining Engagement in the Lazy Days of Summer, SHRM Online, July 2014

Job Satisfaction Drivers Depend on Demographics, SHRM Online, April 2014

Reports Link Employee Engagement and Customer Experience, SHRM Online, October 2012

Study Explores Mysteries of Employee Engagement, SHRM Online, October 2011

Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement, SHRM Toolkits, March 2013

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