The link between greater employee engagement and better organizational performance is now widely accepted. Yet we often hear leaders and managers lament the low levels of engagement that exist in their work environments. Many seek ways of turning this around. They want to find ways of generating positive energy, sparking innovative thinking, creating engaged workplaces where people are driven to perform and succeed. The question is, how to do this?
From our review of the literature and our own experience in management and consulting, we believe it boils down to working with three interrelated factors: meaning and purpose, trust and autonomy, safety and belonging.
1. Meaning and Purpose
We introduced this first factor in a recent post Unique Opportunity to Re-Engage Federal Public Service Employees. It is said human beings do best when they have a sense of purpose. Leaders have a role to play in continually linking the work of the team to the organization’s greater purpose. Why do we do what we do? For most in the public sector, it is not difficult to draw a link between the work being done and service to Canadians—even if it’s not always directly obvious. Visions are written as reminders of the “why” but simply writing inspiring words and putting them on a website is not enough. Leaders must bring these visions to life by taking every opportunity to remind employees of the difference they make, and celebrating these achievements together.
2. Trust and Autonomy
The Oxford dictionary defines autonomy as ‘’ freedom from external control or influence; independence”. In the 2012 federal public service survey focusing on health, executives stated that the degree of autonomy they had in their work was the most influential factor in their level of engagement. The higher the level of autonomy, the higher the level of engagement. Not surprisingly, micromanagement was said to have the opposite effect. Herein lies the clear link between autonomy and trust; micromanagers typically do not trust the work of their employees. But blindly trusting by wholly delegating everything is also not a solution. So, what can managers do to support autonomy in their teams? We believe it starts with the proper alignment between the work of the team, the processes used and clarity of direction. It then requires the provision of tailored support to accommodate different needs of teams and employees; ensuring everyone has the skills, knowledge and resources to be successful. Of course too much ‘support’ or control can quickly become demoralizing micromanagement. Leaders must understand when to step in and when to back off. When employees take full ownership for their work, they become more engaged and self-driven. For the leader, this is not a static process, done once and forever. When new challenges are thrown at a team, alignment will again be required, followed by the right support. Over time, as team members develop more autonomy and competence, they need less frequent alignment and less support.
3. Safety and Belonging
The third factor contributing to engagement also relates to a basic human need. Most, if not all of us, need to feel that we belong. This need can be traced back to our beginnings and the notion of safety in numbers. Contrary to what we may want to believe, we need to feel safe and to belong. Many of us find this outside of our work environments, but leaders who can create this within the workplace end up with employees who bring much more than their hands and heads to work—but also their hearts. How do leaders do this? They must first understand the importance of creating an environment in which people feel safe and supported by colleagues and management; a place where ‘we have each other’s backs’. When this does not exist, much energy and focus are lost to ‘protection behaviours’ such as withholding information, protecting one’s turf, withdrawing from participation, blaming, etc. Recognizing and celebrating diversity is another approach that contributes to safety and belonging. Finally, all leaders know they are responsible for providing a physically safe environment, but it is becoming more obvious that they must also support a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. As awareness of mental health issues increases, thankfully, so does the available support from various sources such as the Canadian Mental Health Association. Moreover, history was made this year when Canada launched the new National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the workplace. Employees want to work and stay in organizations where their psychological safety is considered.
All of these strategies and more lead to increased humanity, compassion and justice in our organizations.
We welcome your thoughts, stories and suggestions on how to build more engaged, energized and innovative teams and workplaces.