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The Navigator
Charting a Path to Leadership Excellence
Volume: # 14April/May/June 2012

President's Message


Last month, our home city of San Diego hosted the 27th Annual Conference for the Society of Industrial /Organizational Psychologists (SIOP), and we'd like to thank all those who attended OSI's welcome reception on the first evening of the conference (if you didn't make it, you missed our custom taco makers!). As a 30+ year member of SIOP, I've always subscribed to the notion that there is nothing more practical than a good theory, and I/O psychologists have contributed some of the best scientific theories in OSI's space of leadership selection and development (e.g., assessment centers, situational leadership, employee motivation/engagement, etc.). The conference did confirm that while fads come and go, the best theory persists in helping us explain and improve organizational effectiveness. This edition of the Navigator highlights some legacy I/O concepts in the very relevant world of employee engagement.

 Bruce Griffiths  


Bruce's signature


   Bruce Griffiths

Employee Engagement: Something New or Déjà Vu?

Bruce Griffiths and Bob Power

This is the second of a series of articles that will examine the fundamental truths about management theory and practice that have persisted over time.

What is employee engagement, anyway?
A little background research shows a surprising number of definitions of employee engagement, with none universally accepted. However, if you look at trends in the definitions, it appears that:
  • Employee engagement is a state of strong mental and emotional involvement in one's work that involves a strong identification with the employer or organization.
  • It is motivated by both internal (attitude, personality, values) and external (supervisors, management, rewards) factors. It should be noted that a relatively stable variable, personality, can play a strong role in influencing an individual's willingness to engage.
  • It is a state that results in positive, observable behavior. For example:
    • She volunteers suggestions for improvement.
    • He perseveres with difficult tasks.
    • She goes out of her way to help her colleagues.
In a nutshell, employee engagement seems to describe workers who consistently perform beyond expectations because of their commitment to their jobs and their organization.

The three levels of engagement
One fact about engagement that is seldom mentioned in the literature is that it isn't a single entity. In fact, there are three levels of engagement under some control by the organization that overlap but are still unique. An employee can be engaged at one level but not another. These levels are:
  1. Job engagement: This involves an employee who enjoys doing the job because the structure and content provide enjoyment, challenge, pride and feedback.
  2. Team engagement: This involves an employee who identifies with the team's purpose and goals, performs with the team's well-being in mind and strives for continual team improvement.
  3. Organizational engagement: This involves an employee who identifies with the mission, vision, and objectives of the organization. He or she is proud to work and eager to strive for the organization's success.
Even though these levels should be viewed independently, they often affect one another. In fact, engagement at one level can cause disengagement at another. For example, an employee may be strongly engaged with his or her job and team, but believe that corporate decisions are acting as a barrier to achieving personal and team goals. As a result, disengagement with the organization may follow.

The opposite can also occur if an employee is so engaged at one level that it results in a positive halo effect for him. For example, an employee may love the job so much that his positive feeling spills over and increases engagement with the team and organization.

Building engagement at each level
Action designed to build employee engagement can focus on one, two, or all three of these levels. Your decision about where to focus depends on your specific situation and your greatest opportunities. Many approaches to employee engagement kick off with an employee engagement survey in order to determine where to focus. Although this isn't always necessary, some upfront analysis will provide an indication of where your energies will be best directed.

Once you have decided on focus, you can formulate strategies to build engagement. It's here we've found that the most successful approaches are those based on longstanding concepts used successfully for many years. Here they are, none of them new, all of them tried and true:

To build engagement with the job. Employees are far more likely to be engaged with their jobs if they find them challenging and meaningful. The first real evidence of this came in 1959 when Frederick Herzberg published his "two factor theory." In this, he stated that most things we had previously believed to engage employees should in fact be viewed as two sets of factors: motivators and satisfiers. As the terms imply, the motivators act to produce behavior we now call engaged behavior, while the satisfiers contribute to job satisfaction but are far less likely to motivate. Moreover, while satisfiers included things like physical working conditions, pay and benefits, the true motivators were more closely aligned with intrinsic conditions of the job itself such as meaningfulness, achievement and challenge.

In the 1970s, researchers such as Richard Hackman, Edward Lawler, and Greg Oldham built further on Herzberg's ideas and moved toward an approach known as job enrichment. This involved taking jobs that were boring and repetitive and enriching them by making them more challenging and meaningful. Now, 40 years later, this remains the most effective way by far to increase job engagement. It doesn't have to involve major job restructuring; sometimes small changes like delegating some challenging tasks or asking employees to work with you to solve a problem will do the trick. But regardless of what shiny new approaches come along, enriching jobs is still the best way to build engagement in the job.

To build engagement with the team. The person who has the most influence over team engagement, and arguably all engagement that can be controlled by the organization, is the immediate supervisor, who can ensure engagement by building into the team a climate of mutual trust and respect. However, a supervisor can't focus exclusively on trust and respect; he or she is also responsible for ensuring that quality work gets done. If the supervisor focuses too heavily on relationship building, much will fall through the cracks. So the key to building engagement at this level is to select and develop supervisors who can simultaneously build trust and respect, while ensuring that high-quality work is produced.

This insight first came to prominence in the 1940s. In this decade, studies at Ohio State University, soon followed by research at Michigan State and MIT, reported that all management behaviors fall into one of two categories, either "employee centered (relationship focused)" or "job centered (task focused)". Thus, to be effective, a manager must do both well. Later theories, such as situational leadership (the need to flex between being directive and participative depending on the employee and the context), confirmed this but added that managers must also be versatile and able to adapt their styles to deal with a wide range of situations.

Much leadership development today focuses on the people side of the equation: the skills required to build trust and respect. We often take it for granted that managers already know the other side and can plan, organize, multi-task and solve problems. But in order to effectively build team engagement, a manager's development must focus on both. For example, to be effective on the task side, a team leader must communicate and hold team members accountable to team purpose, team goals, team roles and plainly defined key processes (communications, decision making, conflict management and change management).

To build engagement with the organization. This might be the most complex of the three levels. Engagement with the organization fluctuates dramatically as a result of recent management decisions, particularly if they have a negative impact on employees. It is, for example, difficult to maintain commitment to the organization in a period of cost cutting and downsizing. Bearing in mind this added challenge, management should do everything possible to maintain and build organizational engagement, even in the most difficult times. The only way to do this is to ensure that employees are given timely updates and, more important, that they understand the reasons for the decisions being made. Of course this is done through effective organizational communication, both up and down the organization. But what's the most effective medium?

We have an array of electronic media available to help us here. We also have popular trends such as "managing by walking around." If managed properly, all can add to the effectiveness of communication. However, returning to basics, the most effective method of communicating to employees is to get information into the hands of the supervisors, who will discuss it face to face with employees. An example of this was reported several years ago at British Telecom. In a time of rapid change, management was intent on improving communication with employees at all levels. They introduced 10 major communication initiatives, including face-to-face meetings with supervisors, management by walking around, newsletters, phone-ins, etc. When they looked at the effectiveness of all 10 media, they found that face-to-face meetings with immediate supervisors were by far the most effective. Few of the other nine even came close.

Getting the relevant information into the hands of supervisors isn't easy, and some organizations, overwhelmed by the task, revert to more easily implemented but less effective methods. But if you can do it, the benefit of greater employee engagement will far exceed the cost.

© 2012 Organization Systems International
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Employee Engagement
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