Engaged Employees are More Productive


Imagine that you're the coach of a professional football team—and that on a really good day, maybe 10 of your 45 players are 100% committed to the team's success. About half are kind of committed (as long as you rev them up with a great pep talk first and keep pushing them, you can count on them to go out there and perform). The rest? Well, those players show up, suit up, and sit on the bench most of the time. They make the minimal amount of effort necessary to squeak by, collect their paychecks, and go home. Can you imagine such a thing?

Oh, wait. That's a typical NFL lineup, isn't it?

All joking aside, my point is this: with a team like that, how many games are you likely to win? I'm betting very few. Oh, you'll win some—against teams a lot like yours. But a dedicated team like the 2008 Steelers would wipe the floor with you, because too few people on your team actually care enough win.

Now, let's translate that analogy into the business environment. You're a manager instead of a coach. Your team is still a team, but they're a bunch of white-collar business professionals rather than athletes. So, given the breakdown I've outlined above in terms of commitment, how well do you expect your team to compete, either within the company or in the global business environment? The answer, of course, is "not very." If you're a manager worth your salt, this won't be acceptable to you. But you can't just fire all the underperformers, or sadly, you might not have much of a team left. A more effective solution is employee engagement.

You've probably heard this term before, and maybe you've dismissed it as just another corporate buzz phrase. In some cases it is, but when taken seriously, it becomes far more than that: studies have repeatedly demonstrated that employee engagement is a significant factor in the success of any company, large or small. Simply put, the higher the percentage of employee engagement, the higher the employee productivity and the greater the corporate success.

So what is employee engagement, exactly? While not everyone agrees on the precise terminology, the consensus is that an engaged employee is one who's enthusiastic and fully involved with his or her job and organization, and who makes a sincere effort to contribute to both team and company success. The engaged employee is proud of what they do for a living and proud of where they work.

As commonly articulated, employee engagement is a relatively new concept, dating only from the early 1990s. The field splits employees into three categories: the actively engaged, the unengaged, and the actively disengaged. Depending upon the study, somewhere between 17-29% of employees are actively engaged. (Returning to our football analogy, those are the players who are 100% committed to winning.) About half—literally the "mediocre middle," as my colleague Mark Sanborn calls them— are unengaged. They may like their jobs, and they may be good at them, but they don't really care much about the company's goals (often because they have no idea what they are). At the bottom of the heap are the remaining employees—again, 17-29%—who are actively disengaged. These are the people who go to work just so they can get their paychecks. They're not committed at all, and they couldn't give two hoots about the company's mission and vision, even if they knew what they were. They're just marking time until they can retire.

Fortunately, these numbers aren't set in stone. It's possible for you as a leader to change them, and it's crucial that you try. Indeed, it's the leader who really makes the difference here: time and again, researchers have found that the relationship between employee and manager is an excellent gauge of the employee's engagement level. As the saying goes, workers don't leave companies. They leave managers. If that sounds like it's all on your shoulders, well…to a large extent, it is. You're the leader of your team, and to most employees, you're the direct representative of the company—and possibly the only such representative they encounter regularly. Along with everything else required of you, it's also your responsibility to ensure that your employees are engaged to the highest possible extent.

Why should you bother? Because by all accounts, engaged employees are SuperCompetent employees: the type of people you build an organization around, and the ones you count on to help take your organization to the next level. According to a recent study by Gallup, world-class businesses (e.g., those that make money hand over fist, have great safety records, and exhibit low employee turnover, among other things) have engaged employee/disengaged employee ratios of about 9.57:1, as opposed to a disappointing 1.83:1 for average businesses. It's clear that, as the researchers put it, "The world's top-performing organizations understand that employee engagement is a force that drives performance outcomes." Gallup sets an engaged/disengaged benchmark of 8:1 for successful, world-class companies, giving us all a standard to shoot for.

The Gallup researchers go on to note that actively disengaged workers cost American companies an estimated $300 billion annually in lost productivity alone. And here's another interesting statistic, this time from Serota Consulting's 2005 study of 28 multinational companies: companies with high employee engagement had share prices that rose an average of 16% over the course of the study, whereas the industry average was just 6%. In 2003, a study by ISR found that companies with high levels of engagement saw their operating profits rise by nearly 4% over three years, while those with low levels of engagement showed drops in net profits and operating margins on the order of 1.38% and 2.01%, respectively. (If you don't think those percentages sound significant, multiple them by a few million dollars and think again.) And consider the fact that in the long run, engaged companies outperform their less-engaged competitors by up to 28% (one of the key findings of the Conference Board study of 2006).

Clearly, engagement is a key driver in achieving and sustaining outstanding productivity in any organization, if only because it dramatically increases employee satisfaction and retention. Engaged employees are far more productive and more valuable than the mediocre middle unengaged employees, or of course the actively disengaged. Naturally, that affects the bottom line; so doing everything you can to increase employee engagement is simply good business. That being the case, you need to understand what factors drive engagement, and how you can put them into play to engage your employees.

Now admittedly, some level of engagement is based on an individual's personality; a bright, bubbly person is generally more easily engaged than a dour one. Otherwise, engagement is driven by a number of interrelated factors, including but not limited to:

• Employee confidence that they can do their job properly, and will be allowed to do so with minimal oversight
• The nature and quality of the job itself
• Access to training and career development
• Opportunities for growth
• Ongoing communication and feedback from management, especially in terms of conveying information and congratulating good work
• A clear understanding the company's goals, and why employee contributions matter
• Trust in the company and its integrity
• Pride in the company, and their place in it
• Opportunities to work in a team environment
• Relationships with team members and other co-workers
• Presence of a confident, competent, and (most importantly) supportive manager who can lead by example

According to recent surveys, only about half of American workers trust the people at the very top of their company org charts. But here's a factoid you might be gratified to learn: about three-quarters trust their immediate managers (including 44% of the disengaged ones). That's good, because again, it's a critical factor in creating and maintaining engagement. Another factor in your favor is that people want to be proud of what they do for a living and who they work for. This will help in your quest to engage your employees and thereby strengthen your corporate culture.

Gallup uses its Q12 measure to determine engagement; that is, twelve questions that it asks every employee when assessing the topic. Some of these questions may seem a bit odd, but together they identify what Gallup calls "strong feelings of employee engagement." You may have seen this before, but here's what they ask:

1. Do you know what is expected of you at work?
2. Do you have the materials and equipment you need to do your work right?
3. At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?
4. In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?
5. Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?
6. Is there someone at work who encourages your development?
7. At work, do your opinions seem to count?
8. Does the mission/purpose of your company make you feel your job is important?
9. Are your associates (fellow employees) committed to doing quality work?
10. Do you have a best friend at work?
11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to you about your progress?
12. In the last year, have you had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

It's easy to see how these questions apply to the engagement factors outlined previously—which should make it fairly easy to determine what you, as a manager, need to work on in order to maximize employee engagement within your organization.

Of course, you're never going to get everyone engaged; there will always be that occasional sourpuss or cheerful non-entity you'll never be able to reach. But if you can meet or exceed Gallup's 8:1 Engagement/Disengagement Benchmark, then your team will outshine nearly all of the competition.

So how do you do it? By fostering an environment of excellence, in which the cognitive and emotional issues that result in employee engagement are actively addressed at all stages of the game. Motivate your team members in positive ways: by walking the talk, leading by example, and making your personal integrity obvious and clear. Let them know what needs to be done, and let them know when they've done it right—and when they haven't. With few exceptions, your employees also want the opportunity to get ahead and develop their skills. Help them. You don't want to necessarily be their friend, but you do have to be a leader in every sense of the term, and you want them to realize that they have a chance to excel under your leadership. Remember: one of the strongest of drivers for employee engagement is the employee's relationship with their manager.

You also have to take into account individual needs based on age, position, experience, and other factors. Young people and those newer to the organization are most interested in challenges and career growth, for example; older and better established workers are more interested in stability, rewards, and recognition. Realize too that a need for stability isn't necessarily complacency; in the current economic situation, most people want all the stability they can get. It would be easy to take advantage of this for your short-term benefit, but I wouldn't if I were you. It won't do a thing to engage lackluster employees, and it might decouple some who are already engaged. Employee engagement should never be based on fear, even if it does seem to work for Darth Vader. When things turn around, how long do you think they’ll stay?

Increasing your ratio of engaged to disengaged employees can be a lot of hard work. It's a task that requires not just strength, but flexibility and empathy; not merely good communications, active coaching and counseling of employees, but also careful consideration of each employee's individual character. So be it. If you end up with SuperCompetent employees that make you and your organization shine, it'll be worth every single minute of effort.

Make it a productive day!

(C) Copyright 2009 Laura Stack. All rights reserved.


© 2009 Laura Stack.  Laura Stack is a personal productivity expert, author, and professional speaker who helps busy workers Leave the Office Earlier® with Maximum Results in Minimum Time®.  She is the president of The Productivity Pro®, Inc., a time management training firm specializing in productivity improvement in high-stress organizations.  Since 1992, Laura has presented keynotes and seminars on improving output, lowering stress, and saving time in today’s workplaces.  She is the bestselling author of three works published by Broadway Books: The Exhaustion Cure (2008), Find More Time (2006) and Leave the Office Earlier (2004).  Laura is a spokesperson for Microsoft, 3M, and Day-Timers®, Inc and has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, and the New York Times. Her clients include Cisco Systems, Sunoco, KPMG, Nationwide, and 3M.  To have Laura speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401.  Visit www.TheProductivityPro.com to sign up for her free monthly productivity newsletter.