External and internal barriers to engagement
To paraphrase the opening to Tolstoy’s magnificent Anna Karenina, “All engaged employees are alike; each disengaged employee is disengaged in their own way.” To understand this is to recognise a fundamental truth about engagement, namely that there are two components to it: the first is what we might call the extrinsic part, those things external to the employee that affect and may be a barrier to engagement, and the intrinsic part, which is about what’s going on in the employee’s head. Both of these components are important, and they need different approaches.
The first component is by far the more tractable of the two; here, re-engagement is about making it easier for employees to engage, through the removal of barriers to engagement, and through assorted ameliorations of problems various. There is unlikely to be a panacea, and it’s highly probably that a raft of minor changes will be necessary. The real challenge here is not carrying out the action plan, it’s the discovery of the information needed to make a good decision about what should be in the action plan.
What the employee thinks v what the employee feels
The annual survey is the traditional method of gathering this information – but most surveys don’t really do this very well, and that’s because they ask the wrong questions. Few employees (especially the disengaged ones) will care about questions like “How well does the company fulfil its customer service promise?”, but most will pay attention to a question such as “How rewarding is the work you do?” Notice the difference? The first question is about what the employee thinks; the second is about how the employee feels. And it’s feelings that matter, because it’s feelings that drive engagement, not facts.
If you’re asking a question because you want an engagement-related answer, your question must be one with which the employee can engage. And the answer? If you’re using a 5-point Likert scale, don’t expect too much – you’ve already taken any passion and shade of meaning out of the reply. Whereas facts can often be quantified, feelings can’t, often being intertwined and too complex to be reduced to one of a small set of answers. Only open-ended questions are likely to elicit a true emotional expression, which is what will be most authentic and most valuable. These comments take more processing, but they are the source of your best information.
Making sure you take action
As a final comment on the extrinsic component, it’s worth pointing out that you can’t expect employee re-engagement to happen until you’ve started on the external changes. So keep the time between asking for information and having done something about it as short as you possibly can. Even a demonstration of speed sends a positive message: that necessary change is a high priority. But the panic’s over; with great alacrity you’ve implemented a set of improvements, and all within three months. What are you going to do for the next nine months, until the next survey? Maybe work on improvement in your employees’ intrinsic motivation … ?
Now, changing other peoples’ feelings from negative to positive is not an easy thing to do. Persuasion, negotiation and discussion are all good techniques. But employees become disengaged as individuals, each for very different personal reasons, if indeed there is conscious thought about the matter at all. But as each case is different, no one-size-fits-all programme for employee engagement is guaranteed to have much effect – rather like an oversized woolly jumper, it fits where it touches. This technique is appropriate for dealing with the extrinsic aspects of engagement, but not with the intrinsic aspects, which require one-to-one communication in order to carry out the aforementioned persuasion, negotiation and discussion. Although people don’t usually decide to become disengaged, they do make conscious decisions about their actions and behaviours, and it’s these that can be worked on.
Before you begin…
Of course, before you can talk to somebody about their disengagement issues, you need to know who they are. Where do you get that information from? It’s not available from your annual survey, because that’s always totalled by office or team or unit to preserve anonymity. And there’s always a tension between preserving anonymity, and a desire to break the figures down to the smallest groups possible. The anonymity tends to win out, because employees tend not to have confidence in surveys that are not anonymous. So even if you could identify someone, this breaches the anonymity and you may find them unwilling to talk to you.
Therefore, you can only try to engage groups that on average seem disengaged (we’ve noted en masse re-engagement as problematic), or do the one-to-one thing with everybody (and arguably, that’s what managers should be doing anyway, but it isn’t always enough). And this is the real problem with the intrinsic component of engagement: there’s no lack of ability to persuade, the lack is of a communications channel for carrying out the persuasion. Put such a channel in place successfully, and re-engagement conversations can go ahead. And as they say in the best algebra textbooks, “construction of a solution is left as an easy exercise for the reader”.
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