Would you confidently state that your people are highly and consistently engaged at work? I think many of us would naturally respond with yes, myself included, but we unfortunately see too many data points that prove otherwise.
Within my military experience, I’ve found that the #1 identifier on how engaged Soldiers are with their work and training at any given time is counting the number of cell phones currently out distracting them from training, work, and the unit’s mission. This is a universal problem though; we can walk into any large business within any industry and see similar disengagement challenges. During my recent holiday travels, I was fascinated to see the extent of employee disengagement that permeated across multiple airports.
The bottom line is that many of our people are not actively engaged in their work or committed to our team or organization. In Gallup’s 2017 State of the Global Workplace report, only 15% of employees worldwide are engage in their jobs.
That’s a problem. And it’s a leadership challenge.
What is Employee Engagement?
Employee engagement is the emotional commitment that our people have to our organization and our collective goals. Engagement is reflected both in attitude and behavior. It involves peoples’ happiness and satisfaction in their work and with our organization, but it is not those things alone. It also involves people materializing that commitment into initiative, personal responsibility to the organization’s performance, and finding meaning in their work and what we do.
Peoples’ work engagement is a leadership challenge and responsibility. Engagement does not occur on its own; we must cultivate our peoples’ engagement, which requires consistent attention and investment. I think Hackman’s and Oldham’s (1976, 1980) Job Characteristics Model is a helpful way to think about employee engagement and find ways to target and improve it.
A Way to Look at Engagement: The Job Characteristics Model
The Job Characteristics Model (JCM), above, is a model that specifies conditions where people become internally motivated to perform their jobs effectively – how they become more engaged in their work and our organization.
Of most significance in the model, there are five core characteristics of peoples’ jobs that we must address:
- Skill Variety: The degree to which a job requires a variety of different activities and skills in carrying out the work.
- Task Identity: How much of the job requires completion of a whole, identifiable piece of work (doing a job from beginning to end with visible outcomes).
- Task Significance: The amount of substantial impact their job has on the lives of other people, both internal and external to the organization.
- Autonomy: How much freedom, independence, and discretion people have in their work, to include task scheduling and procedures to employ.
- Feedback: The amount of direct and clear information people receive about their effectiveness and level of performance.
By manipulating these five job characteristics, leaders improve peoples’ critical psychological states and outcomes as outlined in the model. You can learn more about the details of those (and the moderators) here.
Of most importance, though, is how leaders can best manipulate these five core job characteristics to improve peoples’ work engagement. I offer seven simple ways that we can start doing that now.
A Warning on Time Investment
As in all things leader development, employee engagement requires a critical leader resource: time. To develop peoples’ engagement at work, leaders have to do more of that exact thing – engage with them – which takes considerable time to do well.
Actioning things like coaching (discussed below) instead of quickly outlining specific tasks for your people requires leaders to dedicate more time to their peoples’ development. We must be willing to commit to that – recognizing what is urgent vs. important and building capacity for development within our organization and people.
7 Things Leaders Do to Improve Peoples’ Engagement
Below are seven proposed things leaders can do to manipulate the JCM’s core job characteristics and thus improve employee engagement:
- Set clear expectations and train them. One of the most common issues that challenge employee engagement is their lack of clarity on the full extent of expectations. Leaders tend to lack the time commitment or candor to fully outline expectations for people. Expectations should include job and task performance, AND challenge people toward continued growth, learning, development, and advancement (reference growth mindset). Further, leaders need to ensure we provide sufficient, extensive, and routine training. With added training, we can then set and communicate higher expectations. Welcome to on-the-job leader development.
- Define what and why; let them figure out how. No micromanaging, hovering, or failing to delegate – period. I think this is the #1 contributor to peoples’ lack of motivation at work day-to-day. It also deprives your people of quality developmental experiences by not letting them struggle to create a solution or complete a challenging task. If you must “trust, but verify” to ensure quality and standards are being met, schedule check-ins, but do not use those sessions to take over and do the work for your people. Reference item #5, below.
- Communicate perspective and message achieved impacts. As I learned from BG Dave Hodne, leaders communicate perspective – they show people that who we are, what we do, and why we do it is important. Leaders also need to recognize and celebrate performance to include key achievements and small wins. This perspective and messaging must be a habit, though. A single email or speech won’t change hearts and minds. As James Kerr references in his book, Legacy: “Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” Use every touchpoint you have to communicate perspective and message those most important things. This includes group meetings or lectures, individual one-on-one sessions, and emails. Reinforce these ideas and the value your people bring every opportunity you have. When you’re sick and tired of talking perspective and impact with your people, you’re probably about halfway there.
- Develop leaders (vs. broad leadership development). I think too many organizations’ “leader development programs” focus on leadership development (collective social capital and leadership abilities across the current organization) and not enough on leader development (an individual’s capacity to lead and influence regardless of circumstances). We need to improve our organization’s processes and interpersonal dynamics to elevate performance, absolutely. But we also need to invest in growing our individual leaders through tailored and focused attention on their unique developmental needs (hence the earlier warning about time).
- Lead with a Coaching Habit. I think leaders today need to be more coach-like in how they lead and influence their people. Leader-as-coach is not telling your people what to do or even offering advice (mentorship). Instead, it is maintaining responsibility of the issue or decision on your people and guiding them to a self-actualized solution. This tends to look a lot like extensive questioning from the leader to ensure your peoples’ decision is well-thought-out and informed. This builds self-sufficiency in your people (autonomy) and is a great leader development activity on the job. You can learn more about coaching for leaders here, here, and here. Further, I highly encourage you to check out Michael Bungay Stanier’s book, The Coaching Habit.
- Create 2-way feedback loops. Being an effective, high-performing team requires a culture heavily founded on feedback, or sharing “truth in love” to one another. Leaders must demonstrate the candor and commit the time to provide routine, relevant, and high-quality feedback to their people; it improves self-awareness and provides a base-line for goal-setting. But leaders must also be willing to solicit feedback bottom-up. Feedback loops must be two-way; we have to listen to our people and build a psychologically safe culture among our team to give them the confidence to share. Leaders can obtain that bottom-up feedback on the JCM’s skill- and task-related job characteristics through simple questions like:
- Are you challenged in your role? What is your biggest challenge?
- Are you overwhelmed by the scope of your job or any specific tasks?
- What do you need to do your job or this task better?
- How can I help?
- Use organizational improvement projects. I’ve discovered a lot of value in assigning additional “special projects” to teammates based on their skills or developmental needs. It helps improve the organization and their engagement, as well as provides another quality developmental activity for them. Identify a need within your organization, big or small, and instead of addressing it yourself, consider assigning the issue to one or a group of your people. Some simple and small examples I’ve recently employed include: working with some Soldiers while I was a company commander to paint our unit symbols and mottos around the company area to reflect key artifacts of our culture, and asking one of our young West Point Cadet sophomores to re-design our Cadet in Charge of Quarters duty binder to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of Cadets fulfilling that daily duty (think Army charge of quarters, or CQ, duty).
I’d love to hear other innovative ways leaders have found to improve employee engagement; I believe this is a universal challenge all leaders face and an important issue we all must address. I think we can all benefit from more options. Lead (and engage) well, friends!
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