Engagement is not about happiness. Of course we want people to be happy in their work. But the key to the puzzle is in the word “work”, because it’s in our daily jobs that we find work engagement.
What does that mean? It comes back to what we actually do every day in the workplace. We spend most of our time — hopefully — working. We do our tasks. We focus on our priorities or objectives. So it’s only natural that engagement needs to focus on the work itself.
This is the connection between employee engagement and performance. If the thing that most affects our experience at work is our work, then engagement needs to be centred around work outcomes. And that’s fantastic news for everyone, because the more you improve work outcomes — by harnessing the resources, training and relationships your people need — then the more effective people will be. It’s possible to affect work engagement, and therefore productivity and profitability.
Years of specialist research — including a meta-analysis of 90 engagement studies with a cumulative sample size of more than 60,000 people — has found that work engagement is the single best predictor of both task and team performance. Nothing else — including transformational leadership — affects our performance in the same way. The obvious implication here is that if we measure work engagement in a continuous way and put employee engagement data in the hands of managers and employees (rather than measuring it annually or bi-annually and from afar) we provide a trigger for meaningful action. By encouraging people to reflect on how they feel about their work, we make them more aware of the challenges and opportunities they face. If we then link that directly to performance management, by prompting employees to discuss these things with their managers in one-to-ones, we create an environment designed to help people develop and thrive. Engagement feeds performance management, which in turn feeds workplace productivity.
The key to employee engagement
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Contrary to our title, then, employee engagement and performance management aren’t simply linked: they’re part of the same thing. You can’t truly engage people if you don’t help them perform. You can make them happier by improving the working environment; you can boost team cohesion with social events; you can even upskill and motivate large groups by offering training initiatives. But none of these measures, worthwhile and valuable though they are, are specific to individuals and rooted in their personal development needs.
The challenge is that in most organizations, these two disciplines are managed entirely separately. In larger organizations, they can be run by entirely different teams. They use different tech platforms. Many businesses now manage performance in a continuous way and use dedicated performance management tools to measure its effectiveness. Many businesses are convinced of the benefit of a closer relationship between manager and employee. And yet employee engagement remains an “HR thing”. Engagement surveys are usually conducted by HR, who go on to capture the data, share it with leadership and propose initiatives to act on those results. But if we want to ensure that performance and engagement can feed off each other, we need to include the whole organization. Engagement data needs to form part of manager-employee conversations. Action needs to be grounded in individual needs. Once that happens, it opens up a world of metrics — ways to measure, compare and guide teams towards the end goal of high performance.
Managers and employees get all-new topics for meaningful conversations about work outcomes. Over time, both will understand the importance of taking prompt action to address specific obstacles. And HR and leadership can see, at a team and business level, how the effect of wider events affects engagement and performance. Using three new ways of measuring engagement — energy, immersion and purpose — it’s possible to drill down into the specifics of why team members are becoming disengaged, and work with managers to address the issue. It’s possible to look at how wider events — a merger, for example, or sudden growth — can affect the organization by team. The more the business understands its people, the more opportunities there are to take real action and move the engagement dial.
By treating performance management and engagement as part of the same equation, and applying the same principles of continuous measurement and in-the-moment response, we have the chance to make a fundamental change to the way we support and motivate our people. And because the focus is on improving work outcomes, we can make a real difference to the way people experience their jobs. The advantages to employees and managers are obvious. The advantage to the business is better productivity: sustained and sustainable high performance supported by actionable insight.
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