5 Learnings about Employee Engagement

[ This article was recently published (in Dutch) in the leading Dutch management journal MT (MT.nl). Read the original article here ]


“So let’s be honest, why wouldn’t you do it? ” This was the sentence I concluded my last article with on MT.nl. It was an article about improving employee engagement, a topic that is still underestimated by many organizations.


After the publication, we were contacted by people from all over the world for a presentation, acquaintance, or advice. From the United States of America all the way to Dubai, requests came in from trainees to CEO’s of different organizations. People were curious to find out how our method would work with their organization. That’s why we decided to set up our own business around our method at the beginning of this year.

Today, most organizations seem to focus primarily on leadership in order to improve employee engagement. This has to do with countless number of studies that have shown that an Empowering Leadership Style strongly correlates with engagement. Personally, I did a similar research in the Dutch Banking Sector. The research showed that, in particular, the emotional involvement with the organization (which is the hardest to achieve) drastically worsens when the supervisor maintains a directive / traditional leadership style. The latter style is the opposite one to the empowering leadership style.


Over the past twelve months we had the privilege to visit several companies. We were able to speak to employees in all layers of the organizations and gather some great best practices. The most surprising learnings from the many interactions are presented below.


  1. Nobody likes traditional managers

Employees are not engaged when managers perform traditional management tasks, such as assessing people, checking work done, checking execution of work, reconciling process steps, thinking about solutions, and continuously giving instructions. There are only a few environments in which such leadership leads to better engagement, for example with the fire department or in an emergency room at a hospital. With the fire department you can think of situations during a rage of an extremely big fire. And with the ER you should consider a life-threatening situation where quick action is required. In such complex situations, it is nice to be able to rely solely on the experience of the leader and simply follow his/her commands. But in the majority of companies there is a growing dislike towards managers who need to have the last say. Employees prefer a manager who is able connect them with other people, who is able to use their strengths and talents to make the organization stronger and who enables them to make the most of themselves by increasing decision-making power and autonomy.


  1. Everyone wants to provide his/her input

Executives and employees want to think about how they can improve their company. This makes them no different from each other. Therefore, both employees and executives should be involved in improvement initiatives concerning workplaces, customer service and products. In large organizations employees can not always be asked to provide input on every new strategic initiative. But when it comes to their immediate work environment, not asking the employees for their input can turn into a tragedy. Fortunately, most managers acknowledge this. However, some managers still think that not all employees want to think about these topics, that they are incapable to do so, or that a short conversation at the coffee machine is the same as asking their employees for input.


  1. There’s too much focus on measuring

A few days after the publication of the last article, we got in touch with the CEO of a major international financial institution. He told us that he had recently decided to stop sending out the so-called Employee Engagement Surveys. According to him, the results of such surveys led to frustration, anger and negativity. Another company with a similar problem decided to change the weighting of some statements after their last measurement so that the engagement would look better on paper. It seems that the measurement of employee engagement becomes an end on itself and slowly drifts away from the true thought behind it. Organizations that really want to engage their employees focus less on the result of the Annual Employee Engagement Survey. They rather focus on associated performance indicators such as, absenteeism, voluntary turnover, customer satisfaction, customer retention and financial results.


  1. Internal best practices don’t get enough attention

During various conversations we learned that HR professionals in particular find it difficult to create support for initiatives concerning leadership, culture and employee engagement. At the same time, within the same organizations, we have seen a number of best practices that these HR professionals were missing out on. For instance, a department that had moved from a traditional top-down management style to a more bottom-up approach by which they were able to a achieve a better result. Unfortunately, such internal best practices are not always noted. In the end, simply not noticing such a best practice can lead to demotivating those who have the best intentions with the company. It seems as if the HR professional continuously tries to invent the wheel, while the solutions, and support for their vision, are a nose length away.


  1. Focus on the base: Employees

None other than Richard Branson says that employees come before customers: “If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customers.” Although not every executive we know agrees with this statement, they all know that higher engagement leads to better organizational performance. Scientific research also shows that more and more CEO’s worldwide are starting to realize that engaged employees are at the base of sustainable growth. And rightly so, because other researches have shown that organizations with many engaged employees have more satisfied customers, are 21 percent more productive, show 25-65 percent less voluntary turnover, have 37 percent less absenteeism and are 22 percent more profitable. The companies with many engaged employees are literally twice as successful as companies with less engaged employees.


A one-size-fits-all solution to improve employee engagement does not exist. Above all, improving employee engagement is not a matter for the leader alone, but that of everyone working for the same company. And the latter is what makes this topic so complex. The only correct way to increase employee engagement is by focusing on those involved. Start small and talk about engagement. See the employees as partners. Share best practices, both internally and externally, and keep engagement on top of mind every day.


Also read the previous article by Aleksander Tchernov.

Aleksander Tchernov was a Manager at ABN AMRO Bank in Amsterdam. He started his own business 369method and helps companies to improve employee engagement.