The science of building employee engagement

The science of building employee engagement

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Posted on September 08, 2016

Ever since I began teaching working MBA students 15 years ago, I have often asked them how they find their workplaces and how motivated they are at work. A significant number of students, unfortunately, have reported that their workplaces are generally “toxic” and that they are not motivated at all. I’ve worried about this because many of my students work in the biggest companies and are quite reasonably compensated. “What a waste of human talent,” I would usually say to myself.

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Benito L. Teehankee


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My informal finding is supported by global surveys.According to Gallup, “the world has an employee engagement crisis, with serious and potentially lasting repercussions for the global economy.” Why is engagement so important, and why is a leading research and consulting company sounding the alarm on employee engagement?Engagement is the willingness of employees to go the “extra mile” for companies -- to give that extra discretionary effort on the job. In the increasingly global and ferociously completive business landscape facing most companies, that extra effort is a big deal! Gallup has been tracking employee engagement data since the early 2000’s and has found that, unfortunately, even though many companies and their leaders worldwide are interested in and actively measure engagement, the low engagement level has not budged in more than a decade.In the case of the Philippines, a 2012 Gallup survey found that less than 30% of workers are engaged at work. For a country that prides itself in its human resources, this is not a good situation. The productivity the country needs to achieve the breakthrough growth we all dream about can be achieved only with higher levels of employee engagement. To make our situation more challenging, the country’s predominantly young workers fall right into the least engaged group of employees reported by Gallup -- the millennials.With so many companies investing in employee engagement programs, one wonders why such programs don’t seem to work. Gallup explains that such programs must use “scientifically and experientially validated approaches that lead to changes in individual and business performance, supported by strategic and tactical development and performance solutions that transform organizational cultures.”Fortunately, there are such productivity-enhancing approaches with plenty of scientific support from the field of positive organizational psychology.Ruben Chaumont, founder and CEO of Intentional Work Communities (IWC), enthusiastically advocates positive organizational psychology in the workplace. Speaking at a forum organized by the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) last month, Chaumont explained that the basic cause of employee disengagement is the “disconnect between what brings out the best in people and how work environments and cultures are designed.” (Disclosure: I work in partnership with Ruben Chaumont to conduct seminars on “How CEOs and Executives Can Build an Empowering Company Culture.”)Citing psychological science, Chaumont argues that human beings perform at their best when they satisfy their core needs, namely, physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual (or PEMS, for short). Physical needs are met when the work environment is conducive to employees’ concentration and the work itself is not exhausting. Emotional needs are met when employees feel the confidence of their bosses and the support of their work teams, and feel trusted enough to take reasonable risks. Employees’ mental needs are met when their work goals are clear, when they can make decisions, and when they receive helpful feedback from their bosses. Spiritual needs are met when employees’ work is aligned with their personal purposes and can meaningfully impact the organization.

The Energy Project, a consulting and training company, surveyed almost 20,000 people and found that those who reported meeting two PEMS needs at work had 75% higher engagement scores than those who reported not meeting any. And those who reported meeting all four PEMS needs reported almost double the engagement level of those who only met one need at work.

And the business significance?

A 2012 Global Workforce Study conducted by Towers Watson found that companies with high engagement scores had average operating margins that are 40% higher than those with the lowest scores!

Not surprisingly, a key factor in building employee engagement and performance is leadership behavior. The Energy Project identified the three most powerful leadership practices to be: 1) treating employees with respect; 2) recognizing and appreciating them; and 3) being positive and optimistic.

The way forward is clear. Business leaders have to stop wasting human talent and instead focus on building employee engagement. And it’s not just about measuring engagement and having engagement “programs”; it’s more about practicing leadership that genuinely attends to core employee needs while treating such employees with respect and care.

Is this really so hard?

Benito L. Teehankee is professor of Management and Organization at De La Salle University. He is also vice-chairman of the CSR Committee of the Management Association of the Philippines.