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Why Everything You Know About Employee Engagement Is Wrong

If your employees are less than engaged at work, you might just be making these common mistakes.

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One of the biggest lessons you probably learned in 2020 was that employee engagement matters. According to the American Productivity Audit, employees who aren’t present at work cost companies more than $225 billion a year. When the global health crisis hit and forced workers to go remote, employee engagement mistakes became obvious as companies navigated the changing landscape.

After the shift to remote work, many companies prioritized their employee engagement programs as a way to ensure employee health and wellbeing were at the center of their talent management strategy. For instance, Zoom expanded its employee wellness benefits and tasked its volunteer “happy crew” to provide employees with virtual events. As a result, the Drucker Institute ranked Zoom the highest for employee engagement and development in its Management Top 250 ranking.

Although companies like Zoom mastered how to improve employee engagement, others completely missed the mark. How? By failing to measure employee engagement at all (a mistake 46 percent of companies made in 2019, according to HR.com research) or by measuring it on a group level. If you’re examining your entire workforce, you might understand engagement trends and pain points. But that won’t provide actionable data that helps you meaningfully address a lack of engagement at the individual level, which is most important for productivity.

Related: Employee Engagement: How to Get Remote Workers to Care About Your Business as Much as You Do

A new approach to getting employees engaged

The global health crisis and resulting shift to remote work had a silver lining: Leaders began to understand the importance of employee engagement in ways they never did before. In 2020, lockdowns made it impossible for most leaders to observe employee engagement or productivity the old-fashioned way. This forced them to revisit their perspectives.

During a 2020 roundtable discussion, which involved 15 virtual meetings with 150 chief human resources officers from large companies, Gallup discovered that the crisis changed the way CHROs think about engagement and productivity. CHROs realized that they were making critical employee engagement mistakes, so they abandoned their obsession with performance to instead focus on trust.

Related: 5 Truths About Employee Engagement That No One Wants to Hear

Many leaders are now beginning to consider what employee engagement means for their business. Rather than think of employee engagement as a group concept heavily influenced by the manager, they are realizing it is an individual state of mind. Being engaged is a psychological phenomenon that is driven by employee expectations and motivations as well as good leadership and management practices. It requires the employer to take interest in what the employee cares about and what they enjoy doing. Ensuring an employee’s interests and enjoyment are aligned to the role they have is key, particularly in a job market where talent is hard to find. The New York Times reported that employers added 916,000 jobs in March 2021, so job seekers can be more selective and choose employers that prioritize well-being and purpose.

How to improve employee engagement in 2021

By taking the time to understand individual employees’ expectations, needs, priorities and aspirations, you shift the power dynamic. High individual engagement and productivity result in a win-win situation for both the employee and employer. A lack of engagement isn’t always obvious when you measure at a group level, so stop making the same mistakes and focus on truly getting employees engaged:

1. Connect employees’ needs to your company’s objectives

If you want to learn how to improve employee engagement, evaluate employees on an individual basis. One-size-fits-all solutions will only work for a percentage of your workforce. However, an individual approach will ensure workers have what they need to feel connected and important to your company as a whole. You can achieve this by forming a connection point between what employees need and what your business hopes to achieve.

According to the Achievers 2020 Culture Report, employees who feel connected to their company’s values are five times more likely to feel engaged at work. Try having a conversation from the top down about how each person contributes to your company’s goals. At the global nonprofit WaterAid, for instance, board members work together to boost employee engagement through regular conversations with executives and staff about how each employee can achieve the organization’s vision.

2. Remember the two sides of employee engagement

Most business leaders rely on middle management to ensure employees are engaged in their work, but engagement at work is impacted by many different factors. That’s why an individualized approach is needed that relies on both the manager and employee.

At the end of the day, it’s not just up to the manager to engage employees. It’s a dual effort. Putting the responsibility entirely on managers doesn’t take into consideration the various individual expectations an employee must achieve. For example, managers can’t encourage employees to prioritize their wellbeing without giving them ample time to do so. The manager and employee must work together to first boost engagement and then drive business results. Accounting firm PwC encourages its employees to add wellness to their performance goals. Employees will track their progress with their managers, who hold them accountable for taking a certain number of vacation days planned, for example.

Related: Employee Engagement Has a Direct Link to Successful Business Outcomes

3. Ask your employees about their professional expectations and measure their level of fulfillment

Now that you understand the role workers play, you need to ask the right employee engagement questions. What are their most important professional goals? Are the goals fulfilled in their current role? If not, are the goals realistic? Does the employee possess the behaviors necessary for success, and does the company have a matching opportunity? Talking to individual employees about their professional expectations and any potential challenges will help you identify the unique behaviors that drive engagement, productivity and retention.

Take advancement, for example. Many employees expect to advance within their companies, but advancement looks different to every person. You can find out what advancement means to each employee by simply asking. Once you know what they expect, you can determine if there’s room for growth based on the position and employee’s behavior. Through conversation, you can create a mutually beneficial dialogue about alignment between employment expectations and company objectives. Plus, employees who feel heard are 4.6 times more likely to perform at their best, according to Salesforce.

Increasing employee engagement has been a topic of conversation for many years, but 2020 placed it front and center. Now, employers are actively talking with individual employees about engagement — and fulfillment — at work. You can avoid making the same age-old mistakes by using these three employee engagement best practices.

Dr. Dan Harrison

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Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

Dr. Dan Harrison is the founder and CEO of Harrison Assessments. The company’s award-winning, cloud-based technology provides secure, job-specific predictive analytics that enhance the candidate and employee experience and save HR professionals and managers time and money.