Most leaders of companies today recognize the importance of having an engaged workforce, yet research consistently shows that between 50 and 80 percent of employees are not fully engaged. When so few employees are fully engaged, organizational performance and customer satisfaction plummet while turnover increases.
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Worse yet, your best talent – those with lots of options – is likely to leave.
An interesting phenomenon occurs in most organizations. On day one, fresh hires are fully engaged and excited to begin their new experience. According to research we've conducted at Metrus Institute, however, engagement levels drop considerably during an employee's first few years – and often far more than you would expect. Clearly something is going on.
If your organization is looking to combat the decline of engagement levels, try taking these four key actions:
1. Change 'Work/Life Balance' to 'Work/Life Integration'
Stress cause by work life/home life conflicts can severely reduce engagement levels. Today, work and home are not separated by an impermeable boundary. Many of us respond to work-related texts or emails at night and on the weekends or find ourselves working feverishly to finish reports and presentations at home.
At the same time, we're frightened to address personal issues that come up during the workday. Engagement drops because of how one-sided the situation is. One thing we must recognize about our interconnected lives is that, good or bad, issues traverse all spheres of our lives – work, family, friends, hobbies, health. One HR professional in a financial services company told me, "I got so caught up in my job that I constantly felt guilty about neglecting my family." Another reported, "I was constantly torn between being successful at work and being successful with my kids." This constant tension leads to debilitating stress and burnout.
Luckily, the stress can be avoided by updating workplace policies and educating leaders on how to help employees integrate different sectors of their lives. For example, smart firms now focus on results instead of time spent at work. They've also begun regularly reviewing workloads to ensure that people – especially high performers – are not overloaded.
2. Help Employees Build Resilience
Developing resilience to setbacks and the grit to push through barriers is increasingly important at work. As we cope with a relentless increase in demands in order to remain competitive, it is more important than ever to develop these compensatory strengths.
Roughly 95 percent of people interviewed in a recent Metrus Institute study had major setbacks at some point during their lives and many intermediate ones yearly, but very few had the coping mechanisms to quickly recover and get back on track. Over time, however, many were able to discover techniques to accelerate the process of recovery. For example, those who had mentors and deeper networks of good friendships were able to weather storms better.
Another technique companies can use is a "pull the switch" option, an employee-friendly way for overloaded workers to say "Enough!" and signal that they need support. This approach has been employed quite successfully in high-performance safety environments for years. Why keep the line or individual going when they are becoming less and less effective? Pulling the switch doesn't mean someone is a bad employee; it means they need support – whether it be guidance, resources, information, or skills – to continue moving forward.
3. Empower Your People to Take Charge
Engagement is not something that can be given to people; they have to feel it. According to my own calculations based on a wide range of research into happiness and fulfillment, we control 60 percent of our own happiness. Over time, however, many employees develop learned helplessness, often at the hands of leaders who have constantly said "No" or taken control away from people.
If you listened in on the focus groups I have conducted with employees over the years, you'd find the amount of learned helplessness mind-boggling. People have given up on changing things because they feel stupid trying to make an impact when they just keep hitting barriers. Resilience is one thing, but repeatedly running into the same wall is the definition of insanity. Try passing more authority and accountability to employees – but make sure you're empowering them to take action to achieve results.
4. Train Leaders and Employees to Take Control of Engagement
Engaging people comes naturally to some, but for many new and even experienced managers, it is difficult to do. Few people receive engagement training when they take on oversight responsibilities.
Another issue for managers is that it is far easier to assume that everyone is the same and should be treated the same – something HR has encouraged for years. You can't get into trouble when you treat everyone alike. The problem is, this assumes people are robots. (Who knows – even the robots may resent it!)
When Metrus Institute studied great leaders in restaurants, for example, we found that the best managers were those who got close to their people and helped their teams and individuals achieve their goals. These managers didn't limit themselves to work goals, either. They knew who was dealing with child or adult care, who attended school, who had challenging commutes, and so forth. They formed their teams to engage people by accepting and leveraging their differences. They treated people as individuals – the way most of us want to be treated.
Employees, too, can be trained on how to take greater control of their engagement. What are they passionate about? What saps or fuels their energy? What elements of the workday can they control better?
Dealing with falling engagement levels? These four simple steps will put you and your employees on the road to creating a highly engaged workforce.