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Coach to Your Team's Strengths to Improve Employee Engagement

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SHRM has partnered with Security Management Magazine to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies. 

Each day, pollsters at the Gallup company monitor the upticks and downticks of America's pulse. They track large-scale indicators like the country's unemployment rate, the citizenry's economic confidence, and the president's approval rating. But among these tracked statistics at Gallup lies a less publicized marker: what percentage of U.S. workers say they are engaged at their jobs?

For managers, the answer may be discouraging: only about one-third of American workers are engaged on the job, Gallup now finds. The employee engagement rate has stayed in that low range for the last 15 years—from 26 percent (on a yearly average basis) in 2000 to 33 percent in 2016, according to Jim Harter, chief scientist of Gallup's international workplace management and well-being practices.

Actively disengaged employees cost the United States $450 billion to $550 billion per year, according to Gallup's research. Employee disengagement can increase turnover, pollute office culture, and lead to more mistakes in the workplace.  Conversely, Gallup researchers found that organizations that successfully sustain high employee engagement reap serious benefits. On average, profitability is 22 percent higher; productivity, 21 percent higher; absenteeism, 37 percent lower; and there are 48 percent fewer staff safety incidents.

Moreover, experts say there are many best practices that organizations and managers can follow to maximize employee engagement. From strength building to safe-space dialogue to stronger mission connection, an organization's leadership can make all the difference.

Energy and Flow

Employee engagement is not a new workplace concept; it has been discussed and studied for more than 25 years. But with more recent research illustrating its benefits, and the hazards of disengagement, the concept of employee engagement is now "much more integrated into how we look at work," says management expert David Zinger, a Canada-based consultant who runs The Employee Engagement Network, an online resource. 

Zinger and other experts argue that Gallup's methodology (a 12-question survey that poses core value questions such as "at work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day") leads to exceedingly low engagement scores. Other methodologies put the U.S. employee engagement rate at about 50 percent, these experts say. Still, almost all agree that whatever metric is used, the rate is still too low.   

By definition, employees who are engaged are usually involved in and enthusiastic about their work, and are making valuable contributions to their organization. Bob Kelleher, an expert who runs The Employee Engagement Group consultancy, says he thinks of engagement as a successful partnership between an employer and employee.

"The employer is helping the employee reach his or her potential, while the employee is helping the employer reach its potential," he explains. "It's the ultimate win–win. The byproduct of this partnership is a discretionary effort."

And that discretionary effort from the employee often comes naturally, because of the positive energy generated by simply being engaged. 

"When an employee is engaged, they experience a state of flow. They are energized. They are learning. They have fun," says Pi Wen Looi, a workplace expert who heads the Novacrea consulting firm. "As a result, they are more likely to recommend their company as a great place to work, stay longer with the company, and go above and beyond their role."

Natural Selection

Managers play a crucial role in maximizing employee engagement in the workplace—and that management effort should start with the hiring process, experts say. 

Looi mentions recent research she was involved in that was aimed at identifying employees' sense of purpose to help them find jobs that were in tune with their personal values. The research showed how an employee-employer values alignment at the start led to greater engagement. 

"If you want to have engaged employees, you'll need to make sure you are recruiting the right talent—a passion and value match, a culture fit, and with the right skills," she says.

In part, that's because high salaries are ultimately not enough to ensure high engagement, she adds. "What motivates employees comes from their own heart. You may have market competitive pay and benefits, but these extrinsic motivators are not sufficient to propel employees forward," she explains. "It's the intrinsic motivators such as pursuing their values and passion, continual learning, and building good relationships with peers that will keep a person going and thriving."  

Kelleher illustrates this by using the acronym BEST. Employers tend to hire for the middle two letters, education (E) and skills (S), in hopes that they will be the most reflective of performance. But it is the first and last letters, behaviors (B) and traits (T), that best reflect employees' values. 

Since a values alignment is key to engagement, employers should also focus on behaviors and traits in the hiring process. Sometimes, disengagement is the result of the fact that the values of the company and the employee were never a match. "I often tell clients, 'You don't have an engagement issue, you have a selection issue,'" Kelleher says. 

The importance of the hiring and selection process also applies to managers, Gallup's Harter says. Many who become managers don't yet have the skills and training to be effective. 

"A lot of people are put into the role because they are successful in a previous position, but that position was not a managerial one," he says. "Or, they are selected because they have been around a long time in the organization, so it becomes a rite of passage."

Indeed, based on his decades-long study of engagement and the U.S. workplace, Harter says that sound manager selection is one of the three most effective ways an organization can increase engagement. The other two ways are managerial practices—a focus on building employee strengths, and a sustained two-way coaching dialogue between managers and employees.  

These last two ways are effective in part because they are being driven from below, Harter explains. Newer workers, the 20- and early 30-somethings who are members of the millennial generation, "want a coach type of manager who focuses on strength-based development, as opposed to a manager who is an expert in their weaknesses," he says. 

In a strengths-based workplace culture, employees often learn their roles more quickly produce better work and are more engaged, he adds.

In its own recent research, Gallup found that 67 percent of employees who say that their manager focuses on their strengths are engaged, compared with only 31 percent of the employees who say that their manager focuses on their weaknesses.

Continual Conversation

Besides a strength-based approach, younger workers are also asking for a managerial approach that does not focus on a once-a-year performance review, but features a continuous two-way conversation in a coaching manner, Harter says. 

Other experts agree. Zinger, who consults on employee engagement around the world, says that one commonality he has noticed is that employees in virtually every country want their managers to care about them. Kelleher also stresses this. 

"Empathy is a significant leadership competency—especially in 2017," Kelleher says. "Employees who think their employers care about them as people are more likely to give above and beyond."  

A 2016 Gallup report, What Great Managers Do to Engage Employees, drew the same conclusion. 

"A productive workplace is one in which people feel safe…enough to experiment, to challenge, to share information, and to support one another," the study finds. "In this type of workplace, team members are prepared to give the manager and their organization the benefit of the doubt. But none of this can happen if employees do not feel cared about."

This feeling of being cared about is built through regular conversation, during which the manager learns about the values, goals, and passions of the employee. 

"Conversations are in many ways the lifeblood of the organization," Zinger says. But they do not have to take up hours every week. Some days, brief check-ins are fine, and help maintain engagement.  

"Some managers may think, 'Oh my gosh, I have so much on my plate. Now you want me to have these conversations?' But it can be as quick as 45 seconds," Zinger explains. Even a short text or email can be productive, he adds. 

Gallup's Great Managers study confirmed this link. It found that consistent communication—whether it occurs in person, over the phone or electronically—is linked to higher engagement. Employees who have regular meetings with their managers are almost three times as likely to be engaged, compared with workers who don't, the report found. 

Moreover, these conversations are a good opportunity for managers to draw attention to employees' accomplishments. Here, Kelleher's advice to managers is simple: "Recognize, recognize and recognize."

"Recognition is a significant engagement driver. It is almost always free, has lasting impact, and managers tend to see a replication of the positive results that they are looking to recognize," he says. "There is simply no downside."  

In addition to conversation, a manager's behavior is also important because it can have a mirroring effect, Zinger says. Based on that behavior, it's easy for employees to see how connected a manager is to his or her own work, and the organization at large. A manager who encourages engagement, but is cynical or uncaring in his or her own work relationship will be quickly seen as inauthentic. 

And the mirroring effect can work both ways, he adds. Let's say a manager has a staff of 10, and two of the 10 workers seem disengaged. Out of frustration, the manager may start avoiding and minimizing his or her conversations and interactions with them. In effect, the manager is following the employee's lead; from the employee's point of view, the manager is becoming disengaged.  

Finally, Kelleher advises managers to establish what he calls "a line of sight" between an employee's work and the mission of the organization. To do this, managers need to explain where the company is going and its vision for the future; the strategy for how the company intends to get there; and how the employee's work is a part of that. 

"Line of sight is critically important to engagement. Employees should not be working in a vacuum," he explains. 

What Organizations Can Do

Managers are not the only ones who influence employee engagement. Organizations as a whole, through both their policies and executive leadership, can also have a significant effect, experts say. 

For example, a company may want to consider reworking its performance review process so that engagement is discussed during reviews. These should be two-way, safe-space conversations, in which employees are comfortable talking about when they feel disengaged, for what reasons, and what could be done differently. 

"Frame performance conversations as a way to look forward and help employees grow, not as a backward-looking, punitive means," Looi says.

Some organizations may even want to consider replacing annual performance reviews with robust monthly check-in conversations that focus on the development of the employee. 

"Get rid of the intimidating phrase 'performance appraisals' and replace it with a new forward-looking phrase—'the employee development planning process,'" Kelleher says. 

The organization's executive leadership, not just middle managers and human resources staff, should also be focused on engagement. Successful companies, experts say, are often proactive on engagement; their leaders are focused on making their firm more attractive in the eyes of the employees, so that more workers will be committed to their jobs. 

Some of these successful companies conduct informal stay interviews with staff. Instead of an exit interview, in which managers try to find out why employees are leaving, managers conducting stay interviews try to find out what it would take for an employee to stay. 

The Future Is Now

While Gallup's U.S. engagement rate has been at or below 33 percent for most of the last 15 years, some experts do see signs that employment engagement may improve. 

Looi points to research advances in behavior economics and nudge theory, which can be used to bolster workplace cultures so that greater engagement is inherently encouraged. 

"When applied appropriately and ethically, you can use nudges to increase employee learning, performance and engagement," she says. Zinger explains that Fitbit-like devices that measure engagement, by way of physical indicators that signal when employees are holding their phones or sitting in a chair, may become more commonplace.  

And Harter, who describes himself as "hopeful," sees new workers continuing to transform the U.S. workplace. The millennial generation, which has been driving an increased focus on engagement, will make up three-quarters of the nation's workforce in just over a decade, according to demographic projections. This generation is keen on being engaged with work that has a purpose, and that is a positive reflection on their values. Studies show, for example, that recent MBAs with high earning power will work for a significantly lower salary if they truly believe in their jobs.

"There's not as much separation between work and life. People want their work to be representations of who they are," Harter says.

Mark Tarallo is a senior editor at Security Management Magazine. This article is adapted from Security Management Magazine with permission from ASIS © 2018. All rights reserved.

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