Instead, spend your employee engagement budget on managers. Sathya's article has been published on Unleash.
Employee engagement is all the rage in companies today, with the HR department wielding more influence than ever as a result. Not only does it HR run recruitment and payroll systems, but it’s now tasked with monitoring and assessing every aspect of the employee’s time with the company; they have brought in technology platforms to achieve this. One of the most ubiquitous tools that companies use is the employee engagement survey. This is designed to provide a snapshot of how each worker is performing and identify areas for improvement. Yet these surveys are often nothing more than a fake form of interaction that produce ‘vanity metrics’ rather than deliver the type of personalized feedback and ongoing actionable change that real employee engagement should provide. Instead, this needs to come from the day-to-day relationship between the employee and their manager – the problem is that many managers are ill-equipped to provide the regular feedback that modern employees both expect and respond to. Not only does the role of the manager need to be reimagined, but the tools they work with need to be transformed as well.
There are three main reasons why employee engagement has not only become a hot topic, but also problematic for many companies:
With Gen Z and millennials now a key demographic in the workforce, the employee profile at many companies is increasingly multi-generational. This new breed of employee cares about working for a mission-driven organization, believes in following their true passion, and values their mental wellbeing. They expect their employer to provide constant feedback, care about their professional development, and coach them to achieve their full potential. That is a heck of a lot more all-encompassing than the responsibilities of managers of yesteryear. The flipside is that employees don’t hesitate in sharing their displeasure when these expectations aren’t met. They are willing to walk out and, worse still, vocalize perceived shortcomings in their networks. Failure to engage properly with employees can plunge companies into a never-ending recruitment cycle, with American businesses losing $1 trillion a year due to voluntary turnover. Employee engagement is a serious bottom-line issue. Employee retention is a big problem. The fluid, non-static worldview that younger generations have grown accustomed to makes the concept of ‘a job for life’, or even for a few years, completely alien. Effective engagement is vital if companies are to hold onto their best and brightest for long enough to invest in their development – yet bad management is at the root of why most employees leave their jobs in the first place.
Managers are made, they are rarely born. The professional and interpersonal skills required to manage, mentor and meaningfully engage with other people can’t necessarily be picked up on the job. People management is hard, and managers don’t magically become good at it because of a title change or a bump of salary. Yet many managers complain of a lack of training, or indeed no training at all. And when companies do provide training, it often isn’t adapted to the new era of employee engagement in which we find ourselves. The very idea of ‘management training’ still focuses on outdated concepts of leadership. Most training makes the assumption that one-size-fits-all, with new managers told what good leadership supposedly looks like, and then left to get on with it. The fact is that most companies still don’t take the role of the manager in employee engagement seriously enough. Leading from the front is one thing – developing an empathetic understanding of team dynamics is something else entirely. This requires regular meetings with team members to establish what drives them as individuals and discover how to bring out the best in them.
Rather than invest in helping their managers to become better at employee engagement, HR departments spend money on systems that compel the workforce to fill in electronic engagement surveys after the fact. This is rarely an effective way of understanding what really makes employees tick. It gives the impression that the company is more interested in producing ‘vanity metrics’ for benchmarking against its peers. And by the time the data from these surveys has been properly analyzed, it’s often too late, and HR finds itself doing exit interviews instead. This approach is indicative of a corporate culture where, instead of weekly one-to-one progress meetings between managers and their team members, 69% of companies continue to rely on soul-sapping, often counter-productive annual or bi-annual performance reviews. Even when regular reviews are being held, current employee feedback systems often rely upon outdated concepts that encourage unnecessarily harsh criticism, subjecting individuals to awkward, sometimes confrontational interviews. Such experiences alienate teams from their managers and quickly lead employees to become disillusioned with their employer.
So what does good employee engagement look like and how can we get there?
First and foremost, we have to reimagine the role of management for the modern workforce. Overwhelmingly these are people who expect a value-driven company culture that focuses on collaboration, innovation and investment in professional development and employee experience. This means that old school goal-driven leadership is no longer fit for purpose. Instead, employees are looking for value-driven managers who can understand and connect with team members on an emotional level in order to obtain the best results from each individual.
Key to this is the concept of continuous performance management, where ongoing progress reviews become a natural part of the work process. Regular, structured feedback from managers is essential to team happiness and managerial effectiveness. It helps employees understand how they’re performing, how they can improve, and how they can meet their goals. Feedback should be specific and sensitively delivered, and where behavior change is proposed, it should be clearly outlined what this is expected to achieve. With regular feedback, it becomes possible to course-correct and identify how employees can grow in connection to what they already do well. Reinforcing positive behavior and providing strengths-based feedback can deliver amazing results in terms of both employee productivity and engagement.
A new generation of employee engagement systems such as Humu and Workhuman are being developed that makes it easier for managers to deliver more meaningful feedback, which is focused on the needs of the individual. These systems use both machine learning and neuro-linguistic programming techniques to address inherent and unconscious biases that often plague the feedback process. By regularly capturing real-time progress data and incorporating intelligent ‘nudges’ to apply learnings on a day-to-day basis, they can help to make a continuous performance management-driven culture the norm within companies. The bottom line is that business is changing, and the workforce is evolving. Yet while the manager’s job has gotten harder, particularly in a world where virtual and hybrid-working is becoming the norm, training and support has not kept pace. Any HR department fighting to retain and engage employees needs to look beyond electronic surveys, and instead invest in technology solutions that enable managers to make the one-to-one engagement process as beneficial and effective as possible.