Research Paper By Peter Kennedy
(Executive Coach, FRANCE)
For many years it has been increasingly agreed that the leadership style of people managers has a clear influence over the happiness and overall wellbeing of employees in the workplace (1). While various aspects of employee wellbeing have been studied, that employee engagement has received particular attention and has for many practitioners become a central focus to improve their company’s competitive advantage in the marketplace.
But what exactly do we mean by ‘employee engagement’?It may be helpful to start by clarifying what it’s not…
Employee engagement does not mean employee happiness. Someone might be happy at work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are working hard on behalf of the organization. While company extras like game rooms and Friday barbecues may be fun–and may be beneficial for other reasons–making employees happy is different from making them engaged.
Employee engagement doesn’t mean employee satisfaction. Many companies have “employee satisfaction” surveys and executives often like to talk about “employee satisfaction”, but the bar is set too low. A satisfied employee might show up for her job every day on time without complaint. But that same “satisfied” employee might not go the extra mile on her own, and when she gets a call from a headhunter tempting her away with a 10% pay increase, she’s likely to take it. Feeling satisfied isn’t enough.
So, if it isn’t employee happiness or employee satisfaction what is it? Employee engagement goes deeper and is more associated with the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals. It is a positive emotional and behavioral state where individuals respond in ways that advance desired organizational outcomes (2). This commitment means engaged employees genuinely care in their work and their company. They don’t work simply for a paycheck, or just for the next promotion, but work on behalf of the organization’s goals. When employees care—when they are engaged—they use discretionary effort; ongoing personal decisions regarding the degree to which they commit to doing their very best to advance their organization’s mission.
It has become clear to an increasing number of leaders that a high level of employee engagement has a positive influence on productivity and output while employee disengagement has just the opposite effect, leading to a detrimental impact on the commercial value of the enterprise. Following the research (3), some of the more specific benefits for an organization in which employees are highly engaged to include:
- Enhanced employee well being
- Higher levels of employee retention
- Improved productivity
- Higher returns for investors
- Increased operating income
- Increased customer loyalty
In contrast, employee disengagement has been shown to contribute to a host of negative factors (4)which impinge on a company’s growth and success including:
- Increased employee turnover
- Decreased productivity
- Low profitability
- Increased theft
- Generally increased levels of employee unhappiness
Due to this and the increasing support for understanding employee engagement as a competitive advantage for companies, more and more leaders have been including the measurement and improvement of employee engagement as a top strategic imperative. Consequently, we have seen a growing demand by organizational leaders for appropriate guidance, frameworks, and tools to help them to foster, manage, and maintain positive employee engagement within their organizations.
Just as forward-thinking leaders, particularly in growing organizations, have increased their overall value in the Human Resources function, they are also recognizing that their competencies, as well as those of their leadership team, are often not sufficiently adapted to address the important and dynamic area of employee engagement. For this reason, the knowledge and skills that experienced, certified coaches can bring to this goal are increasingly recognized and their role increasingly solicited by leaders of organizations as they compete in an ever-changing and ever-dynamic global marketplace. When done well, coaches partner with their clients in a process that is both thought-provoking and creative, motivating them to maximize both their personal and professional potential (5). As such, coaches can greatly help individual managerial leaders and their management teams to better understand the underlying, moving forces behind employee engagement and to increase their ability to foster, manage and maintain the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals.
Current research in the area of Employee engagement has helped to identify at least 7 important action areas which, if given sufficient value and attention, can help managerial leaders to address employee engagement concerns and improve the overall employee engagement posture of their organization (6).
- Model key engagement behaviors
- Show interest in employee development, learning and well being
- Manage work and job demands while recognizing and optimizing personal and job-related resources
- Encourage matching skill levels with important and relevant company challenges
- Align individuals, groups and the organization on critical success factors including core values, strategic direction, and meaningful metrics
- Maximize the approachability of managerial leaders
- Maximize the accountability of all managerial leaders and employees
As managerial leadership actions, including these 7 areas, become part of an organization’s operating environment, a culture of employee engagement is likely to be enhanced and sustained.
So, let’s now look at how a coach can more specifically facilitate leaders in their quest for improved employee engagement. I would like to propose the following 5-step framework to systematically address the 7 action areas described above.
- Commit to the Employee engagement imperative
- Clarify and measure the leader’s current Employee engagement style
- Validate the leader’s perceived Employee engagement style by others
- Develop an Employee engagement action plan
- Implement the defined Employee engagement action plan
The first step in the Coaching process is to build trust and intimacy with the leader so that she commits to the important role employee engagement plays in her organization’s success. During this exploratory stage, the leader must come to better understand and commit to her role in employee engagement. The coach discusses the benefits of the proposed approach and orients the leader to the interactive process that is required of a successful coaching engagement. At the end of this stage, the coach will have established a clear agreement with the leader to pursue the 5-step coaching program to its end.
Once the leader has committed to moving ahead, the coach will support and facilitate her to identify and clarify her current employee engagement style as well as any actions that are already taken to address and improve employee engagement. The coach will discuss and agree with the leader on appropriate assessment tools to be used in measuring current and future employee engagement leadership style as well as the state of employee engagement overall within her organization. The leader and coach will work together to assess the leader’s perception on how well she models key engagement behaviors; shows interest in employee development, learning, and wellbeing; manages work and job demands while recognizing and optimizing personal and job-related resources; encourages matching skill levels with important and relevant company challenges; aligns individuals, groups and the organization on critical success factors including core values, strategic direction, and meaningful metrics; and on her overall approachability and accountability as a people manager. This step is critical as it serves to ensure a maximum effort is made to have the leader acknowledge her role in impacting her team’s engagement, as well as establishing a sort of baseline of what she has tried so far to address this important area. Agreeing on tools and the next steps also increase her accountability and the extent she has more ‘skin in the game’.
At this point, the leader is encouraged to validate her own self-perceived employee engagement style by agreeing to nominate a small set of peers or significant others to document examples of how the leader has effectively managed employee engagement in the past. This group is then asked by the coach to anonymously identify a set of ‘best stories’ to illustrate actions the leader has taken in the past that have had positive employee engagement results from their point of view. These stories will help to validate the leader’s self-assessment and add helpful objectivity towards developing a final action plan.
With this peer feedback in hand as well as the leader’s own self-documented best practices, the coach then facilitates the leader to develop an employee engagement plan of action to better foster and improve her team’s engagement. At this stage, the client agrees with the coach any needed resources and support to maximize success.
Finally, assuming the leader has carefully and thoughtfully developed a plan of action, she now takes the critical steps in implementing it within her organization, with regular coaching reviews to assess success and needs for further support. At this stage, it is also fundamental that the leader communicates and socializes the employee engagement program with her wider management team and genuinely promotes down-line coaching for each of them to ensure the plan touches as wide an employee group as possible. This implementation stage is key to the overall program’s success as it is here where the newly developed plan begins to be integrated into the company culture to a greater or lesser extent depending upon the commitment and accountability of the leadership team as a whole. The role of the coach is therefore also critical at this stage to act as both a facilitator and third-party observer of overall progress, thereby helping the leader and her management team to succeed in the employee engagement transformation to which they have committed.
As companies face increasing complexity and competition through globalization, shorter and shorter product cycle times, and younger employee populations demanding much more than just a financially secure career, attention to employee engagement, the degree to which employees feel an emotional commitment to their organization and its goals, is proving paramount to stay relevant, vital and successful. Traditional HR leaders have struggled to address this growing imperative often confusing general employee happiness or satisfaction through survey results with genuine employee engagement. As a result, they have often missed opportunities to address the deeper root focus areas and targeted actions that could improve their employee’s likelihood of feeling truly engaged in the company, and therefore maximizing their productivity and staying power. More and more leaders are realizing that the support of an external or specially trained internal coach can provide them an edge over their competitors by thoughtfully facilitating them to address the important topic of employee engagement through reflection, measurement, action, and accountability.
As we have seen, engaged employees have shown an enhanced sense of wellbeing, and increased likelihood to stay in the company and overall improved productivity; all of which have been shown to equally lead to a higher return for investors’ increased operating income, and increased customer satisfaction and loyalty. In other words, higher employee engagement has become a clear competitive advantage, and therefore investment in the coaching process to improve and maintain this engagement is and should be increasingly viewed as part and parcel of a company’s commitment to vitality and success.
We are moving into a new workplace paradigm (7) of increasingly thoughtful, aware leadership in collaboration with trained coaches working towards the collective success of not only that of shareholders but all stakeholders in the company’s success – particularly that of the employee population at large. For without a well and truly engaged employee team, the company will never attain its highest potential. This is a virtuous cycle and these are hopeful times!
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