Engagement at work matters. Employee discretionary effort and focus are being challenged for many reasons, including the labour market and working from home.
People are finding it easy to find jobs and unemployment is at a record low. It won’t always be like this, however.
Developing the skills to engage team members is important. Maybe, no more so than right now. In years to come, when equilibrium between employers and employees normalises, the investment in these skills now will be returned in spades.
The Reserve Bank of Australia believes that the unemployment rate is heading to 3.25% by the end of this year. They then speculate unemployment will rise to 4% by 2024 in the wake of the economic slowdown influenced by rate hikes. The risk of not getting leadership and culture ‘right’ are significant.
Where we work has rarely provided more options. What we do at work and how we do it is changing. We spend 81,396 hours of our lives working, on average.
The question begs to be asked and answered then: If we spend so much of life at work, how is life at work going?
According to the world’s workers, not well. Gallup finds 60% of people are emotionally detached at work and 19% are miserable. (1) The levels of engagement continue to be alarming for Executive Leaders…or at least, they should be. Yet, these results have barely shifted in many years. Why are people not engaged and can something be done about it?
As a leader you are obligated to develop your skills to influence and support each and every team member. Your goal must be to ensure your team members are regularly performing work that they are good at and care about.
Every employee has to own their development and situation too. Choice and effort influence engagement. This blog addresses 4 key skills and areas to focus on that contribute to employee engagement. One of the most exciting aspects of developing these skills further, is that you the leader, will also see a significant uplift in your own engagement as a result of being more effective in your role.
It’s about understanding how important leadership and engagement are.
None of these points are theories. Yet, too often managers see them as negotiable. It is firstly important to recognise that we all have choices. We can choose to work somewhere or not. The feeling of being ‘stuck’ is one of the most crippling feelings. You have options. We all do.
Gallup estimates that managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement across business units. When Gallup asked managers why they thought their company hired them for their current role, managers commonly said the organisation promoted them because of their success in a previous non-managerial role, or cited their tenure in their company or field. Unfortunately, these criteria miss a crucial element: the right talent to succeed as a manager and leader.
Gallup research shows that only about one in 10 people naturally possess high talent to manage, and organisations name the wrong person as manager about 80% of the time.
We’ve also learned that one in two employees have left a job to get away from a manager and improve their overall life at some point in their career. At CoachStation, we believe this figure to be much higher, in fact, more like 2 in 3 employees. Given the troubling state of employee engagement in companies worldwide, it follows that most managers aren’t creating environments in which employees feel engaged — or involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.
We have seen little evidence that the situation is any different or better in Australia, until very recently. In fact, the focus on themes such as strengths, personal values and coaching have been occurring in the U.S for a longer period. This has provided a solid platform for personal and professional development that is still relatively new in Australia. Thankfully, this attitude and openness to leadership and personal growth is improving. The fact that you are taking the time to read this blog is a positive example.
What’s more, companies that fail to engage their employees are missing out on the powerful results that come from engagement. Gallup’s latest employee engagement meta-analysis shows that business units in the top quartile are 17% more productive, experience 70% fewer safety incidents, experience 41% less absenteeism, have 10% better customer ratings and are 21% more profitable compared with business units in the bottom quartile. (5)
Business units with engaged workers have 23% higher profit compared with business units with miserable workers.
Additionally, teams with thriving workers also see higher customer loyalty. The point is: Wellbeing at work isn’t at odds with anyone’s agenda. Executives everywhere should want the world’s workers to thrive. And helping the world’s workers thrive starts with listening to them.
Before we go any further it’s worth making sure we all understand the definitions of employee engagement. The Gallup organisation provides an excellent summary: Employee engagement reflects the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace. Gallup categorises an organisation’s employees as engaged, not engaged or actively disengaged.
Employees become engaged when their basic needs are met and when they have a chance to contribute, a sense of belonging, and opportunities to learn and grow.
Engaged employees are highly involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace. They are psychological “owners,” drive performance and innovation, and move the organisation forward.
Not engaged employees are psychologically unattached to their work and company. Because their engagement needs are not being fully met, they’re putting time — but not energy or passion — into their work.
Actively disengaged employees aren’t just unhappy at work — they are resentful that their needs aren’t being met and are acting out their unhappiness.
Every day, these workers potentially undermine what their engaged co-workers accomplish.
In one of the largest studies of burnout, Gallup found the biggest source was “unfair treatment at work.” That was followed by an unmanageable workload, unclear communication from managers, lack of manager support and unreasonable time pressure. Those five causes have one thing in common: your boss. Get a bad one and you are almost guaranteed to hate your job. A bad boss will ignore you, disrespect you and never support you. Environments like that can make anyone miserable.
A manager’s effect on a workplace is so significant that Gallup can predict 70% of the variance in team engagement just by getting to know the boss. (1)
The McKinsey group recently published an excellent resource regarding attrition and the reasons why people leave organisations. This data is current and it is real, being consistent with what many of my clients are telling me. To navigate this new playing field successfully, hiring managers can look beyond the current imbalance in labor supply and demand and consider what different segments of workers want and how best to engage them. To do this, employers should understand the common themes that reveal what people most value, or most dislike, about a job.
For instance, it cannot be overstated just how influential a bad boss can be in causing people to leave.
And while in the past an attractive salary could keep people in a job despite a bad boss, that is much less true now than it was before the pandemic. Our survey shows that uncaring and uninspiring leaders are a big part of why people left their jobs, along with a lack of career development. Flexibility, on the other hand, is a top motivator and reason for staying. (2)
Exiting workers told us that relationships in their workplace were sources of tension and that they didn’t feel that their organisations and managers cared about them.
In this latest round, respondents again cited uncaring leaders (35 percent listed it as one of their top three reasons for leaving), but they added a new range of top motivators, including inadequate compensation, a lack of career advancement, and the absence of meaningful work.
In other words, plenty of employees say that they see no room for professional or personal growth, believe that there is better money to be made elsewhere, and think that leaders don’t care enough about them. Tried-and-true reasons for disgruntlement, to be sure, but ones that are now being acted upon broadly. (2) The data provided in the graphic below is compelling.
There is no room for complacency. In the recently published State of the Global Workplace report, 45% of employees said now is a good time to find a job.
This is up slightly from last year, but less than the record 55% in 2019. The regional outlier for this item is the United States and Canada, which leads the world at 71%, up 44 percentage points from the previous year. The next closest regions are Australia and New Zealand at 59% and South Asia at 50%. (1) Reading the language and results in the McKinsey graphic highlights a few key themes.
Namely, that the top reasons for quitting closely align to fulffilling work; engagement; and relationships.
Engagement and wellbeing interact with each other in powerful ways. We often think of engagement as something that happens at work and wellbeing as something that happens outside of work, but Gallup’s analysis suggests that’s a false dichotomy.
- How people experience work influences their lives outside of work. Employees who consistently experience high levels of burnout at work say their job makes it difficult to fulfill their family responsibilities. They are also 23% more likely to visit the emergency room.
- Overall wellbeing influences life at work. Employees who are engaged at work but not thriving have a 61% higher likelihood of ongoing burnout than those who are engaged and thriving.
When leaders take responsibility for the wellbeing of their workers, the result is not only productive organisations, but thriving individuals, families and communities. (1)
The majority of the coaching and mentoring themes that I employ relate to communication to some degree.
It is a common gap in skills and capability for many and has a direct influence on engagement levels. Organisations often assume that these skills exist in their managers, yet rarely meaningfully focus on developing newer leaders to build on this capability.
Let’s be honest, it’s not like all senior managers regularly role model these behaviours and provide effective communication either.
I recognise this is a generalised statement. Yet, I am confident that many people reading this blog, no matter what level they work at, would genuinely question how effectively their immediate manager communicates with them and their team mates.
It appears that communication at all levels could be improved. The great news; these are skills that can be developed by most people – if they put in the effort! A study of managers by Interact Studio and Harris Poll revealed that communicating is not only an employee issue.
This study showed that 69% of managers are just as afraid of communication as their team members.
If both sides are afraid to have tough conversations, these conversations will be avoided. Managers must have the courage and confidence to communicate with their team, no matter what the message is. Comfort and skills can be improved if there is a focus on communication.
In recent years I have developed a tool regarding communication effectiveness. It highlights the need for depth in conversation. To verbally communicate well provides meaning and purpose. It allows for understanding and often, clarity and context. Purpose influences action and improvement.
Unfortunately, many managers do not develop this skill to the level required.
Essentially, we can communicate at various levels of depth. However, most business communication (and that at home too!) often occurs at a moderate and superficial level, at best. I would describe this as a level 1 or 2 type of communication.
The goal is to develop your communication skills to at least Level 3. The diagram above extends this concept. The 5 levels of effective communication highlighted are described in further detail in the following blog: Communicate Effectively to Influence and Lead
Outside of company all-hands meetings and occasional corporate-wide memos, a manager is an employee’s strongest connection to company leadership day in and day out. Their communication (or lack thereof) is what keeps an employee feeling connected to the purpose of their work, and in the loop on what they need to know.
When communication breaks down somewhere in the leadership hierarchy, everyone suffers. This is when people feel out of the loop. It’s also when they get frustrated by putting their efforts into work that doesn’t matter.
It’s the job of every manager to help with the flow of information up and down the organisation. When people express frustration with leadership, it’s usually due to a failure in that flow.
Developing trusted relationships; establishing clear expectations; and, making accountability a cultural norm in the team all influence engagement levels.
One of the biggest challenges for managers who are learning to lead is developing the ability to set expectations and standards. Accountability is the outcome of holding your employees to these standards and expectations. It is also about the employees accountability to themselves.
Understanding the benefits and why to apply a model such as our REOWM model can make a real difference. However, application, consistency and follow-through can be a challenge for many. The 5 stages of the model create a structured process for leading and coaching your team members, focused mostly on clarity, context and accountability. I have found that resources such as these can help leaders to understand not only what needs to be developed, but importantly, also how to do so.
Often leaders are wary of providing their own view as it is seen as subjective. Don’t be frightened to seek and provide this detail as (particularly when respect and trust exist) a simple acknowledgement or recognition of progress can be the difference between an engaged and disengaged employee.
The opportunity to provide greater context and clarity for people is one that I regularly see could be improved in most organisations. Depth and substance in coaching and 1:1 sessions is critical and a tool such as this can make a real and sustained difference when applied. Each step is important and has its own need. Practice the art and science of effective leadership by using tools such as this.
The REOWM model is described in further detail in the following page of the CoachStation website: Accountability and Expectations – REOWM Model
Leaders are under pressure. Behaviours and integrity can be challenged in these environments. I am aware of various situations at the moment where managers are avoiding managing a toxic employee through fear of them leaving the organisation. In a few cases I am hearing the message, “I can’t afford to manage them and risk attrition. We are a team of 9 and I am already 2 staff down. We have been looking to replace them for 10 months, with no success and I can’t afford to lose anyone else”.
I would argue, it depends on how you measure success! I understand the concern, the final statement about losing team members and managing workloads.
But, here’s the thing. The damage this toxic employee is bringing to the table is almost certainly greater than the impact of them leaving.
And, it is almost certainly negatively impacting engagement levels within the whole team. A recent Lighthouse blog highlighted a report from Harvard Business School, where Michael Housman and Dylan Minor broke down the real cost of toxic employees.
“In comparing the two costs, even if a firm could replace an average worker with one who performs in the top 1%; it would still be better off by replacing a toxic worker with an average worker by more than two-to-one.”
Toxic employees don’t just underperform compared to a great employee in the long run, they bring the entire team down with them. A good employee sees this and feels it first-hand. After a while, they can’t take it anymore. Seeing that you apparently don’t mind having an asshole around, they may decide to leave. Get rid of those toxic team members – don’t try to make these ones work.
Even if the employee is high-performing, they have to go, because of the negative impact they have on the rest of the team.
Unfortunately, even if their numbers seem great, they’re still a net negative in terms of the impact they have on the rest of your team. They have to either reform their ways, or leave. When they leave, the performance of everyone on the team will improve by their absence, so there’s really only one thing to do: let them go and reap the benefits. Don’t let a toxic team member be why good employees quit your team. (3)
As highlighted extensively in this blog, one of the key contributors to engagement is the employee’s immediate manager. This can either be a negative or positive influence. Both the manager and employee have a responsibility to own engagement. The skills and capability can be learned.
The real challenge is whether the time and effort to focus on developing these skills is a priority. If not, the results are inevitable. What environment and culture would you prefer to spend over a quarter of your life in?
References and Resources:
(1) State of the Global Workplace – 2022 Report: Gallup
(4) Why People Leave Managers not Companies (and 5 things you can do about it): Get Lighthouse
(5) Strengths-Based Employee Development: The Business Results, Bruno Zadeh, LinkedIn.