As I described in the last blog, we can measure and improve empowerment using a simple model and some data analysis. If, however, we define “employee empowerment” as when an employee has everything they need to do their job, it is a pretty low bar. Is there something above employee empowerment that we can work towards? Something we might call “engagement?” Read on to find out!
In the past three blogs, I have been building up a hierarchical model of how the employee experiences their job. I started with “Basic Job Needs” making sure the organization provides fair compensation and a non-hostile work environment. In the next one I proposed the next level up as “Empowerment” where management needs to provide employees with what they need to do the job that management is asking to be done.
That is a really low bar. But without meeting even the requirements for empowerment, it would be foolish for me to talk to my employees about anything more. So, I need to work on empowerment if the data show that we have a problem with it. In the last blog I showed you how to go about doing that.
But once your employees are generally empowered, what is it that the employees and the organization work on next? The stylish term nowadays is “engagement.” The problem is that a lot of people are throwing around that term without defining it or providing a model for understanding it, other than as a snazzy phrase.
Most fundamentally, academia and business are using two completely different paradigms for the same word. Psychologists seek to create a model of an internal state and external affect, whereas in the business and administrative world management seeks ways to create outcomes. (Wefald & Downey, 2009)
Most of the solutions for the latter are offered by consulting businesses whose models and data are proprietary. Lacking a model and empirical data with which to confirm or deny anything externally, these approaches are “not even wrong” as Wolfgang Pauli might say. (Peierls, 1960) I have talked with many managers who have received reports from so-called “engagement” surveys, and not one knows how to use that information to improve engagement, or even, really, what it is.
It is also important to separate “what it is” from “what it gets you” from “how to achieve it.” If engagement is the next step after just being able to get the job done, it should be defined as such. Macey & Schneider write about engagement as a “folk term” that includes “state, trait, or behavior” and how conflating these terms leads to confusion in what we are even talking about. (2008) There may be many things that come along with being engaged, say job satisfaction (state), a good attitude (trait), or productivity (behavior). Further, there may be many ways of attempting to improve engagement, such as making jobs more interesting, giving employees agency to control their work environment, or providing learning opportunities. Conversations go far astray because people use the word “engagement” and “engaged” to mean all these things.
Businesses and organizations have been working to improve this nebulously or proprietarily defined and measured “engagement” for some time now but have shown little to no significant effect since the inception of the metric, at least as Gallup measures it. (Adkins, 2016) Gallup has some hypotheses about why these numbers are stagnant, with which I generally agree. (Mann & Harter, 2016) However, I think the problem is also one of unclear and proprietary definitions and dubious or inapplicable statistical models leading to non-actionable items for organizations to work on.
I believe it is time to universally standardize the definition of “what it is” in an open and measurable way and then to begin to figure out “how to achieve it.”
A Model for Engagement
As George Box said, “…all models are wrong but some are useful.” (Box & Draper, 1987) Below you will find a model that is no doubt imperfect, but that many people have found useful in thinking about what comes after just being able to get the job done.
If empowerment is being able to do the job, it seems a truism that the next step involves more than just being able to do the job. I propose that “engagement” is simply defined as when employees desire to add value to the organization beyond just doing the job. They exhibit an emotional connection to the success of their process and energetically participate in improving it when given the opportunity to do so.
We can add that on top of the hierarchy we are building:
As I said, an organization needs to work on the lowest level that needs improvement. If someone comes in every day and feels that they can’t get the job done, talking to them about how to add more value to the job will be a short discussion: “I can’t even DO the job now!” Such a manager would seem hopelessly out of touch with reality. Don’t put you or your managers into that position.
I think this works the other direction as well. If a manager hires someone who comes in very excited about their new job, they can be engaged for a while. But that engagement will drain away over time if they continue to find that management has not provided a process that can achieve the basic objectives of the job or lacks a way to actually allow them to add value.
The model also helps clarify who is responsible for acting at each level.
The overall organization is responsible for employees’ basic job needs. An individual manager usually cannot make changes to provide these basic needs on their own. Thus, the responsibility for the base level of the hierarchy tends to rest with the top management of the employer.
Empowerment is granted by the direct supervisor, and supervisors can be held accountable for it. If any of the five components of empowerment are missing, either the supervisor hired the wrong people, they need to provide those missing components, or they need to revise the outputs expected of the employees. While the direct supervisor has the biggest effect on an individual’s empowerment, clearly higher levels of management may have a part to play as well.
Engagement, however, requires effort from both manager and employee. A manager can put systems in place that allow an employee to achieve engagement, but it is up to the employee to utilize these systems. If the employee does not want to add value to the organization for whatever reason, we cannot hold a supervisor solely responsible for the lack of engagement, as we can with a lack of empowerment. To use an analogy, while management can fertilize the fields, the employee needs to bring the seeds. Only by working together with management to plant and water these seeds can employees achieve engagement.
This also has impacts on recruiting and hiring strategy. While managers can empower anyone to do a job, the potential for engagement rests in the employees themselves. Without giving thought about who we hire beyond can they just do the job, we may end up with a workforce that is not going to become engaged no matter what support management provides.
What Can I Do?
In order to improve something, we have to measure it. Our simple definition of engagement can be used on a survey instrument that monitors both empowerment (since that supports engagement on the hierarchy) and if an individual is engaged in their job. Using a variety of group structures (like the excellent Liberating Structures), employees can themselves generate a list of specific actions they think would help improve their engagement. Then, keeping in mind that there are things for both employer and employee to do to become engaged, we can empirically assess which factors most strongly relate to stated engagement. This will allow the organization to work on those things on either employer or employee side, that will best promote engagement. As these employee-generated actions are implemented, we can monitor engagement to determine if we see the improvement we would have expected and dynamically modify the approach accordingly.
The effect of a fully engaged workforce is actually easier to measure than whether they are empowered, since it has measurable business consequences. If every supervisor tracks “things done above the value of the job” it is easy to put dollar amounts on the value of an engaged workforce. Keep in mind, however, that value is only created when both the workers want to be engaged and the business has created systems that allow them to be engaged. This practical measure only works if both are present.
Why not use one of the other commercially available models? Because I am not convinced that there is a universal model of how to achieve engagement. There may be similar factors that influence it, but the relative importance of, say, “Personal support of one’s supervisor” versus “Opportunity to perform well at challenging work” (Vance, 2006) could be quite different from an IT organization to an HR one, or from one country’s or company’s culture to another. Coming together as a workforce and identifying ways to make themselves feel engaged ensures that, at least as initial hypotheses, these factors make sense to the employees themselves.
The beauty of this approach is that we do not need to have an a priori model of engagement beyond the seemingly obvious one above. The definition of engagement and the important factors in achieving it are co-created between the employees and the management, just as engagement itself is. The actions taken are emergent from the unique perspectives of the very employees we are trying to engage.
If this sounds like a lot of work, especially for the supervisors, you are right. But if an organization is really serious about getting the benefits of a workforce that wants to add value above that of the job, it is going to have to build systems to hire and support the type of employees that want to be engaged. What else would you have your managers do?
But even engagement is not the top of the hierarchy. In the final blog on this I will propose what lies beyond engagement, so don’t miss that one!
Adkins, A. (2016, February 8). Little Change in U.S. Employee Engagement in January. Retrieved February 24, 2016, from Gallup: http://www.gallup.com/poll/189071/little-change-employee-engagement-january.aspx?g_source=EMPLOYEE_ENGAGEMENT&g_medium=topic&g_campaign=tiles
Box, G., & Draper, N. (1987). Empirical Model-Building and Response Surfaces. John Wiley & Sons.
Macey, W. H., & Schneider, B. (2008). The Meaning of Employee Engagement. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 3-30. doi:10.1111/j.1754-9434.2007.0002.x
Mann, A., & Harter, J. (2016, January 7). The Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis. Retrieved February 26, 2016, from Gallup Business Journal: http://www.gallup.com/businessjournal/188033/worldwide-employee-engagement-crisis.aspx?g_source=employee%20engagement&g_medium=search&g_campaign=tiles
Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation - the basic needs. Psychological Review, 50, 370-96.
Peierls, R. E. (1960, February 1). Wolfgang Ernst Pauli, 1900-1958. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 5(0), 174-192. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1960.0014
Vance, R. J. (2006). Employee Engagement and Commitment. Alexandria, Virginia: SHRM Foundation.
Wefald, A. J., & Downey, R. (2009, January). The incubator: Job engagement in Organizations: Fad, fashion, or folderol. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 141-145. doi:10.1002/job.560