Employee Engagement – The Half Truth

Employee engagement is on everyone’s mind these days. Not only do we continue to see the dismal numbers reported again and again, but more studies are also revealing why it’s a serious business problem. Higher employee engagement correlates with greater productivity and profits. Low engagement, on the other hand, can cost companies billions in turnover, poor performance, and competitive threats.

There’s no question, then, that employee engagement should be a top priority for every organization today. The problem is, we’ve been trying to address the issue with only half a solution.

The Missing Ingredient in Employee Engagement Strategies

There’s a saying that employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers. You can probably think of some of your own experiences of being disengaged at work to see the truth in that statement. So it makes sense that a lot of leadership development strategies focus on improving managers’ abilities to establish good relationships with their employees, respect them and their contributions, recognize them for their achievements, and build trust.

Improving the manager’s relationship with the employee is certainly a critical factor in the engagement equation. But what about the employee’s relationship to the work? Is the work structured in such a way that employees can see how their efforts are producing value for the company?

The manager’s ability to put in place an organization-wide work structure that better connects employees with their work is too often overlooked, but it’s just as essential.

Think about it: No one wants to feel that they’re failing in some way, that no matter how smart they are and no matter how much effort they put in, they’re still going to end up with half-finished projects, confusion about what’s really important, and a feeling that there will never be enough hours in the day to get it all done. There’s no sense of pride and accomplishment in an environment like that. And when you don’t feel pride in your work, it’s that much easier to disengage.

The fact is, we’ve piled on more responsibilities, projects, and initiatives, with shifting and sometimes conflicting priorities, but we haven’t provided employees with the structure and clarity they need to be successful—to get the work done.

Organizing the Way Work Gets Done

If you haven’t heard much about organizational work structures in the context of employee engagement, that’s not surprising. We tend to only hear about the manager-employee relationship issues, and most people who are focused on that part of the equation don’t typically understand the basics of work structures.

But employees are looking for more from their managers than just a positive relationship; they’re also looking for an environment that allows them to contribute their best, where they don’t feel their time is being wasted, and that gives them a sense of satisfaction and pride from the effort they put in.

Here are three of the common scenarios we’ve seen occur when managers have not implemented an effective work structure:

  1. An employee starts working on one thing and then, before finishing it, is told to stop working on that and start on something else that’s a “higher priority.”
  2. An employee is consistently given more work—all of it labeled as high priority—to the point that he or she feels there is simply no way to succeed.
  3. An employee happens to be getting things done on time, but his or her peers are lagging behind or producing below the desired level of quality.

All of these damage the employee-work relationship while reducing the perceived value of the employee’s work results. Ultimately, the work stops mattering, and employee engagement goes down.

Engaged employees are a powerful force. An effective organization-wide work structure ensures an employee’s efforts are moving the business forward, that realistic expectations on results are established, and that everyone is working collaboratively, building on each other’s contributions.

Getting better at the manager-employee relationship will help productivity and profits, but only to certain degree. If the organizational work structure is ineffective, you’re putting a cap on those benefits.

Don’t forget the other half of the equation. Put a strong work structure in place, and you’ll really start to the see the productivity and profit payoffs.

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