Engagement and motivation

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Written by John Sylvester and Ruth Patel on 1 April 2014 in Features

The two are not the same, say John Sylvester and Ruth Patel

Employee engagement has become a popular management term, often used to describe how organisations have approached the issue of productivity or morale among staff. It is widely used when discussing issues such as staff motivation, loyalty, retention, reward and recognition.

Engagement is a hot topic, but the signs are that few organisations are doing it well. Only 13 per cent of employees worldwide are engaged at work, according to Gallup’s 142-country study The State of the Global Workplace1 carried out last October. The study suggests that only about one in eight workers are psychologically committed to their job and likely to be making a positive contribution to their organisations.

It is vital to recognise that engagement is not the same as motivation. L&D professionals need to ensure that employees are broadly engaged with the aims of their organisations before they can even think about implementing reward and recognition schemes aimed at boosting motivation. Such initiatives hope to achieve specific sales goals or service levels but, without engagement, there is a real danger that they will be met with indifference or cynicism.

Employees will be more engaged if they feel they are learning and growing in their role and adding real value to the goals of the business. L&D professionals have a critical role to play here: if they can foster employee engagement, the organisation will see concrete improvements to the bottom line arising from improved sales figures or enhanced customer service.

Rewards for engagement

Research shows there are tangible rewards for organisations that get to grips with employee engagement. Engaging for success: Enhancing performance through employee engagement, a report to government written by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke, points out: “In a world where most factors of production are increasingly standardised, where a production line or the goods on a supermarket shelf are much the same the world over, employee engagement is the difference that makes the difference.” And this could make all the difference as we face the realities of globalised competition and of the millions of graduates, and even more skilled and committed workers, that China, India and other economies are producing each year.

The Institute for Employment Studies/Work Foundation report People and the Bottom Line found that, if organisations increased investment in a range of workplace practices relating to boosting engagement by just 10 per cent, they would increase annual profits by £1,500 per employee.

Where to start

HR and L&D professionals are taking the first steps towards addressing engagement. The Civil Service carried out its first service-wide survey of employee engagement in 2012. It found that the four themes with the greatest influence on engagement levels were ‘leadership and managing change’, ‘my work’, ‘my manager’ and ‘learning and development’.

The Civil Service employee engagement index is calculated as a weighted average of the response to five questions and the resulting ‘index’ number ranges from 0 to 100 (0 being extremely negative and 100 extremely positive). In 2012, the service reported an index number of 58.

Measuring existing levels of engagement provides an important benchmark for improvement, but there is not yet an established best practice for measurement. Organisations might need to take a step back and identify what attributes and behaviours engaged employees display in their organisation before deciding how to measure engagement.

There are a number of measurement tools available. The Utrecht work engagement scale, which includes a subscale for each of the three engagement dimensions (vigour, dedication and absorption), is widely used. Human Resource Development International has developed the ISA engagement scale, based on the view that engagement comprises intellectual, social and affective factors. It combines measurements of those three factors to formulate an overall level of engagement for each person.

L&D and HR professionals can implement the ISA scale as part of a wider survey of employee attitudes to discover how engagement relates to other factors in the working environment, such as leadership style, communications and training. Its advantage is that employers can evaluate engagement as a separate factor while also looking at related factors.

Gallup measures employee engagement based on workers’ responses to its Q12 12-question engagement survey. Organisations in its client database with an average of 9.3 engaged employees for every actively disengaged employee in 2010-2011 experienced 147 per cent higher earnings per share compared with rival companies in 2011-2012.

In contrast, organisations with an average of 2.6 engaged employees for every actively disengaged employee experienced 2 per cent lower earnings per share compared with the competition during the same time period.

Next steps

Once the organisation has defined what engagement looks like and measured current engagement levels, it is time to act and make the most of engaged employees.

Engagement is all about people skills and human drivers. HR managers can give the organisation a fighting chance of achieving an engaged workforce by ensuring they hire new employees that have a propensity for engagement and that people promoted to management and leadership positions display attributes of engagement and are fully on-board with the organisation’s mission. This can be achieved by incorporating the attributes of people with a propensity for engagement into person specifications for job roles.

The next step is to ensure that people have the right skills for the job – both the ‘hard’ skills that make them competent in their roles and the ‘soft’ skills that prepare them to provide social and emotional support to colleagues. High levels of sickness absence are characteristic of an organisation in which levels of engagement are low. On the other hand, organisations that have achieved high levels of engagement equip their employees with the emotional resilience to handle times of stress at work, whether that is a high workload or the possibility of redundancies in the team.

Training and development is at the heart of how an organisation should foster engagement. It is critical to ring-fence the training budget to ensure managers receive good training in how to support, and maintain the engagement of, workers.

Further down the chain, individual workers need to feel confident that they will be able to get access to the training they need to be competent in their roles. This is important because an employee who feels out of his depth and unprepared for the demands of his job is likely to disengage and perform poorly, or leave the organisation altogether.

At a time of longstanding financial uncertainty, it can be a mistake to view such training cost as an overhead. In fact, any training budget deployed on engagement initiatives is likely to contribute more to the bottom line than the same budget being deployed to train a large number of new hires. Few organisations are starting from a baseline of a complete lack of engagement. The challenge for many is not only to increase employee engagement, but also to make the most of, and retain, current levels of engagement. At this stage, fostering engagement is not about driving broad cultural change but about creating recognition for employees that is designed to address very individual and personal drivers.

Most people will not take up the challenge of achieving organisational aims and objectives without being offered a positive reason to do so that suits them personally. They need to be offered aspirational rewards as incentives that appeal to them. A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach isn’t an option.

The objectives and criteria for earning the rewards must be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound) and the appeal of the rewards must be communicated effectively and regularly throughout the duration of the scheme to keep them at the front of people’s minds. This is easily neglected, yet is so important to the momentum of any rewards and recognition scheme.

The longer-term challenge

Many organisations are facing up to the need to address employee engagement in order to succeed. The aim is to get employees to buy into the organisation’s goals, ambitions and corporate ethos in a way that will inspire them to want to drive the business. In a challenging business environment, it is important to spend the time necessary to make each individual employee feel that they are an integral part of the organisation and that their efforts will contribute to achieving success.

Individual engaged employees who feel personally rewarded by the opportunities and successes that are created through their hard work, as well as the recognition that they will receive from their employer, combine to form a motivated and loyal workforce that can take on the world. Employee engagement is a long-term challenge for any organisation. It is a concept that is here to stay and one that can help companies large or small to get the very best out of staff even when times are tough.


1 http://bit.ly/1eBemOU

About the author

John Sylvester is director at motivation and performance improvement company P&MM Motivation; he can be contacted via www.staffmotivationmatters.co.uk.

Ruth Patel is a business psychologist and founder of Unlocking People Potential; she can be contacted via www.unlockingpeoplepotential.co.uk



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