How to Build Employee Engagement

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Employee engagement is defined by marginal effort. In other words, what are employees doing that they don’t have to do? How hard are they trying? Compare two employees – one is working very hard, putting in extra marginal effort; the other is not. It would be a mistake to think that the second will perform as well as the first. Even so, this is not the biggest mistake made in employee engagement.

Are we missing half of the equation?

As a Fellow in the National Academy of Human Resources, the highest award that can be given to an HR professional in the US, I’ve been asked to speak at many HR conventions around the world. At one recent convention, I had the opportunity to listen to incredibly smart, prepared HR professionals who had done their homework about the topic of engagement and important related factors like: quality of leadership, fair compensation, recognition programs, needed training, and effectively communicated corporate values.

I had no disagreement with anything that they said.  It all seemed very logical to me.  I believe that companies should do whatever they can to create an environment that builds employee engagement.

As I listened to the presentation, I began to have a realization -everything that these great HR leaders talked about focused on what the company could do to engage the employees – absolutely nothing that they discussed focused on what the employees could do to engage themselves. As I listened, I thought, “This is incredibly effective presentation describing half of an equation.” They were persuasively explaining how the company could increase the employee’s engagement and completely ignoring how the employees could increase their own engagement. This is the biggest mistake we make in employee engagement!

“Ask not what your country can do for you.”

I thought back to the famous quote from the John Kennedy inaugural speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

I realized that one hundred percent of what was being said was the reverse of the John Kennedy speech. The entire presentation revolved around what can the company can do for you, while zero percent focused on what can you do for the company.

On American Airlines alone I have over 11 million frequent flyer miles. Most flight attendants do a great job. On the occasional flight, there are two flight attendants, one is positive motivated upbeat and enthusiastic – while the other is negative, bitter, angry and cynical. I’m sure you have been on this flight before.

What is the difference? The difference is not what the company is providing. Both flight attendants may be making the same pay, with the same uniform, with the same customers, on the same plane, with the same employee engagement program.

What is the difference? The difference is not what is on the outside. The difference is what is on the inside.

While I respected and appreciated everything I heard from the HR leaders at the conference, I believe they were missing the most important factor in employee engagement – the person who is doing the work.

It’s true that creating a great environment is a key factor building engagement, and we all have the opportunity to take responsibility for our own lives and to do our best to build our own engagement – regardless of what the company is doing.


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Marshall Goldsmith
Dr. Marshall Goldsmith was selected as the #1 Executive Coach in the World by GlobalGurus.org, and one of the 10 Most Influential Management Thinkers in the World by Thinkers50 in both 2011 and 2013. He was also selected as the World’s Most Influential Leadership Thinker in 2011. Marshall was the highest rated executive coach on the Thinkers50 List in both 2011 and 2013. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There was listed as a top ten business bestseller for 2013 by INC Magazine / 800 CEO Read (for the seventh consecutive year). Marshall’s exciting new research on engagement is published in his newest book Triggers (Crown, 2015).

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