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Employee Engagement: What It Is (And What It Definitely ISN’T)

Why do we care so much about employee engagement?

When we get down to the brass tax of it, what is it that makes employee engagement such an important part of our management strategies? Is it just because other companies are doing it? Are we just trying to make sure we don’t fall behind the times?

Or on the other hand, is it simply borne out of a desire to see smiles on the faces of our beloved employees and coworkers? Is it a part of our mission to spread love and joy to the world?

We can’t speak to your motivations, but hopefully it’s neither one of those. At least, in totality.

Sure, it’s good to stay current with employment trends, and it’s also a beautiful thing to want to spread happiness. The Beatles would be proud.

But ultimately, we want to focus on what employee engagement produces: better performance.

And that’s because the truth of it is that engaged employees are the ones that feel valued, trusted, and certain that they have a place in your organization.

With that in mind, here’s a little refresher on the difference between real employee engagement and the sort of box-checking that keeps your employees checked out.

Competing vs. Crushing

We love talking about healthy competition. It’s the sort of structure that enables everyone in your organization to thrive, rather than simply giving your top performers a consistent, soul-crushing (for everyone else) advantage week in and week out.

Whereas unhealthy competition is a morale killer for your team, healthy competition—using sales gamification, leaderboards, and even tournaments—is the tide that lifts all the ships. By giving your employees targeted goals, you allow them to perform both within their abilities and to strive to reach new heights.

Think of “unhealthy” competition as drag racing, where you’re pitting a consistent winner against a Dodge Stratus. Nothing against Dodges, but that driver’s never going to feel very encouraged by those one on one races.

Alternatively, think of healthy competition as something like the New York City marathon. If you set yourself a goal of signing up for a running it this year, you wouldn’t be mad if you didn’t win. You might even just be happy you finished! And for those who may have done it before, they’ve got a personal record they’re trying to beat.

The point of competition is to help everyone push their personal boundaries, and in the process have some fun competing with themselves and their coworkers. When it becomes something that simply discourages your lowest performers, that’s when it has failed.

Communicating vs. Negating

On a micro level, the difference between positive and negative communication, as M.T. Wroblewski points out, can be as simple as, “‘Stop coming into work late every day’ and ‘Please make sure you’re here on time every day.’ The first message sounds scolding,” Wroblewski notes, “the second sounds more pleasant and also makes the bigger point about punctuality.”

And not only are you being less negative, but you’re actually able to zone in on a specific problem, rather than allowing your frustrations to hop into the driver’s seat and steer you down a rambling road listing out your frustrations with an employee.

Good communication is all about focused, constructive feedback. People don’t need to be told that what they’re doing is bad—good leadership instead shows them how to change their behavior into something good.

And if they did something really bad, we can leave that to HR.

Connecting vs. Withdrawing

A huge part of employee engagement is taking the time to actually connect with your employees on a personal level. Beyond clocking in every day, employees want to be seen and known.

Gone are the days where motivation to stay at a job is just about making money. There are too many options for employees to stay in a role where they’re miserable and isolated.

Chrissy Scivicque, writing for U.S. News, recommends meeting with employees for at least 30 minutes regularly—yes, even if you have no particular reason for meeting!

She goes on to say that meetings “inspire both the manager and the employee to raise important issues before they become urgent… Without regular direct feedback, they can end up creating false perceptions about their performance.”

Getting into a regular rhythm with your employees keeps the dialogue lines open, and you don’t have to question whether or not they’re satisfied with their role. Be proactive rather than reactive.

Driving vs. Coasting

And to take that a step further, Alan Kohll, writing for Forbes, makes the excellent point that it’s not in employee’s hands to take the first step when it comes to promoting a healthy culture: “Managers have the power to create a healthier workplace. This is because they have the opportunity to lead their employees by example. Employees are much more likely to get involved in wellness activities if they see that their manager is doing so.”

This translates to engagement, too. If you as the manager are taking the lead in engaging with your employees, you’re going to be creating a culture of engagement. Leadership starts with you.

Trust vs. Insecurity

Writing an absolutely essential argument on Forbes, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic makes the case that too much of a good thing can turn into a bad thing.

Yes, there is such a thing as overdoing employee engagement.

Tomas writes it plainly and clearly: “if managers can push their employees to perform to their highest level, they will surely be engaged as a result of that. Conversely, if managers are just focused on keeping employees happy, their performance may or not increase as a result.”

In other words, if you’re spending all of your time studying “engagement metrics,” worrying about whether or not your employees are totally stoked on their work, you’re going to miss the whole point of engagement: high performance.

It’s a principal that shows up in every facet of our lives: when we hold onto things too tightly, we end up choking them. A good manager shows their employees that they trust their ability to get the job done. In fact, one survey shows that trust alone will have a “very positive” effect on 40% of your workers’ engagement levels.

At the end of the day, employee engagement is the means to higher performance, and should be treated as such. In short, if you do the work to make your employees feel seen and valued, the rest will follow suit.