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Understanding Employee Engagement

What does it take to get your people invested in their work?


Leaders around the world are aware of the competitive advantages of employee engagement, from increased retention and productivity to greater innovation and safer physical workspaces.

Despite the ubiquity of employee engagement in the modern business zeitgeist, only a select few organizations are successfully engaging their employees, a struggle that is reflected in study after study. According to Gallup, only 33 percent of U.S. employees are engaged at work — and if that sounds bleak, the same study shows that global employee engagement numbers are even lower, hovering closer to 15 percent.

So why the disconnect?

How can so many organizations be focused on engagement with so few actually building such workforces?

The difficulty starts with a common misconception, one that mistakenly construes employee happiness, motivation and engagement as different names for the same thing.

Although they are related, they’re not equivalents. Employee engagement is the emotional commitment an employee has to their organization, its goals, its people and its values. A high level of commitment is something that no number of nap pods, kegerators or catered lunches can buy — but it can be inspired.

Inspiring engagement requires a unique set of tools, but luckily many of them cost very little to use.

Start by defining how you want the team to be engaged. Evaluate your organization’s core values and how they align with personal values. If you haven’t defined your organization’s core values, if they’re vague not representative of your organization, your employees will have a difficult time envisioning how their individual contributions make an impact.

There is a purpose to every job, and purposeful work is a significant factor contributing to engagement. Although purpose isn’t something you can give to someone, you can help reveal it. Illuminate the purpose behind the work your colleagues perform by helping them see how it impacts their team, their organization and the world around them. Recognize great work in the moment and make that praise visible and specific.

A token “Good job!” and pat on the back are certainly better than nothing, but they’re not likely to help someone see the greater impact and value of their work.

Focus on specific contributions and the impact they’ve made. For example: “Great work on the homepage update, Keisha. It’s so important for us to provide users with a delightful experience, and we’re already hearing a ton of positive feedback about the update. Your dedication to quality design is really admirable.”

Simple, genuine interactions like these cost nothing but provide immense value for the recipient and can even offer perspective for others wondering about the impact of their own work, how it aligns with the values of your organization, and how they can make their own valuable contributions.

As employees earn recognition for their valuable work, they naturally become more invested — and more engaged — in its purpose and outcome, proving once again money is not always the only motivating factor for sticking with an employer.

George Dickson manages content and community at Bonusly. He's dedicated to strengthening organizational cultures through thoughtful leadership and frequent recognition. G2 Crowd recognized Bonusly as one of 2017’s top performing employee engagement solutions.

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