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The four corners of engagement

Employee engagement is one of those issues that is constantly evolving with a need for nurturing, maintaining and developing. Henley Business School’s latest research illustrates the importance of understanding your people and recommends an integrated approach to achieving results.

It was once thought line managers (1) were the only driver in ensuring employees are engaged but the latest research reveals the job (4) itself, along with the organisation (3) and the individual (2) are contributing factors.

(1) Line manager
Managers who successfully engage their staff have three main attributes. The top reason is down to focusing on employees on an individual basis and taking an interest in their development on both a personal and work level. This extends to seeking opinions and views about projects and in return showing recognition of their contributions.

Furthermore, and not surprisingly, honesty and authenticity develops respect, which maintains high levels of trust.

Those who are seen to ‘dump’ work on the employee or take credit for their employee’s work obviously disengaged their workforce. In addition, micromanagement results in feelings of unimportance. One of the interviewees, participant B*, says: “I feel less-engaged when I’m micromanaged, when I’m given work which is intellectually un-stimulating, bureaucratic and I don’t see the impact it’s having.”

(2) Individual
Most employees have a natural sense of engagement, which is heightened by feelings of expertise and confidence. Engaged individuals tend to have autonomy and control over their job role and an intrinsic belief in the organisation’s core values. Those who feel their ‘voice’ is not heard will fall into the opposing category.

In this instance, engagement is about individuals’ characteristics, not about a process or agenda, it relates to thoughts and feelings. Participant D* says: “I suppose there are two things I need to have: one is satisfaction that I am making a difference – I’m not wasting my time here. I’m doing something that is actually contributing to the business and is worthwhile and it feels right as well; it feels good. The other part is that I need to have some fun along the way.”

(3) Organisation
Communication and information-giving is critical. Employees must understand how the business functions and see results on a regular basis. Culturally, there needs to be team and organisational awareness, belonging and interaction. Employees who fit culturally experience a sense of pride and purpose, which in turn drives performance for a brand they believe in.

Likewise, companies that put fair processes in place and exercise visible methods of career progression and development cultivate relationships with their staff and augment engagement.

Participant D* says: “We have a bi-annual people survey and the results were critical. Action plans were prepared by team members but the managers took it and did something entirely different with it. I saw how this was handled – there were three pages of good suggestions about how we could do this and that. The management team took it, ticked the issues and said they’d dealt with it. Everyone was going ‘hang on a minute’ and this was very disengaging.”

(4) Job
A workforce that is consulted on target-setting and decision making is likely to take responsibility and accountability for their role. They want to be influenced and guided but simultaneously given the freedom to act and make decisions without fear of punishment if mistakes are made. Each job specification should be tailored to each individual, appealing to their strengths and talents but also stretching and challenging them.

Participant C* says: “I think in the end, what I strongly believe in is a ‘tightness’ in the briefing, a faith you can do it, and a ‘looseness’ in how you do it (I respond to that very well – tell me what needs to be done but give me the space to be able to do it). In the end say ‘OK, have we achieved this – yes or no?’”

What this means
Each of the above four categories have various stages of engagement but the line manager is always prevalent and should play a mediating role to the job, individual and organisation.

By concentrating on all four areas of engagement the workforce is more inclined to have a psychological sense of obligation to the line manager, thus a commitment to the company. Equally, building confidence leads to discretionary effort and energy, which ultimately improves productivity and performance.

In contrast, breakdown in communication and trust is detrimental to retention and results in negativity, cynicism and lack of loyalty as well as encouraging work avoidance.

Where to go from here
Henley Business School has devised a set of 10 recommendations and insights in order to eliminate disengagement:

1. We know what engagement is: the main issue may be with application
2. Line managers need to listen to their people, find out what motivates them and show genuine interest
3. Line managers should see a clear sense of direction and show individuals how they make a difference
4. Balance micromanagement versus lack of perceived interest in people
5. Balance the complexity of structure with the need to allow people to see their contribution
6. Balance the process on one hand with the needs and talents of the individual on the other
7. Match people and their strengths to jobs and roles
8. Develop the self-efficacy of people
9. Use but don’t rely on surveys: the role of HR is to coach line managers and develop an approach that focuses on the person being managed
10. Recognise that when recruiting for a job there is a need to recruit for technical skills and also potential for engagement

According to Henley Business School, it is the board and MD’s responsibility to drive engagement and HR needs to act as the facilitator and confidante.

The research was carried out to answer the question: How do line managers produce engagement or disengagement?

Four global organisations took part with 33 employees being interviewed. To overcome sample size limitations, two quantitative surveys were conducted; a main survey with 1,253 respondents from nine organisations and a final survey with 1,500 respondents from 13 organisations.

*Participants were interviewed as part of the research and remained anonymous.