By: Sylvia Vorhauser-Smith SVP, Global Research, PageUp

First published on Forbes.com 28 January 2016

It is made up of two arguably unremarkable words, yet employee engagement is deceptively complicated. Just look at the diversity of questions used to measure employee engagement : from gauging an employee’s perceptions about role clarity or the level of support they receive from their manager, to their belief in the organisation’s mission.

In the inimitable words of HR industry thought leader John Sumser, “Engagement is like Jell-O and you can’t nail Jell-O to the wall.” That said, organisations around the world continue to strive to get employee engagement right. They are trying to find ways to get that Jell-O to stick.

Nearly 90% of today’s organisations say that culture and engagement is one of their top challenges – and for good reason. Highly engaged companies have been shown to yield better business results. They attract better candidates, have lower turnover rates and enjoy superior financial performance. Strong employee engagement can help solve the business problem of organisational performance and also help build a sustainable workforce for the future.

By creating an environment that is inspiring and rewarding, organisations are delivering the conditions in which people have the ability to achieve their best. Unleashing discretionary effort. Tapping into potential. Soon, high quality talent attracts more high quality talent and a high-performing organisational culture takes shape.

We’ve gone beyond the war for talent. Talented workers today enjoy the perks of job choice and career opportunity, so organisations must create a compelling employment proposition that not only attracts top talent, but engages and retains them. For companies everywhere, the war for talent is fast becoming a crusade for engagement.

Mission Impossible: Defining Engagement

Engagement clearly matters in a competitive global economy, but even agreeing to a common definition of what it is can be challenging. As Sumser aptly notes, in the first Gallup engagement surveys, the questions were focused on simply whether employees were happy.

We now understand that engagement is not something that fits nicely in a box. For every individual organisation, there is a unique and distinctive approach to aligning the workplace with the wants and needs of the individuals within it to achieve true engagement.

Engagement is the outcome of multiple inputs, many of which employees aren’t even consciously aware of. From research into the Neuroscience of Engagement, we see that engagement levels are affected by a number of factors, including an employee’s perceived status among co-workers, the quality of the relationships created in the workplace, and the level of certainty, autonomy and fairness experienced at work. The higher each of these factors is rated, the more likely the individual is to be engaged.

Relationships Matter

The people that employees work with exert a direct influence on their levels of engagement at work. In a recent Gallup Q12 engagement survey, employees were found to be significantly more likely to be engaged in their work and in their workplace if they had a best friend at work. Even though many executives I speak with suggest having a ‘bestie’ in your workplace is not essential, everyone agrees that relationships matter.

Marc Effron, president of The Talent Strategy Group, has discovered through his work with leading organisations around the world that when a good relationship exists, employees are more likely to report job satisfaction and engagement. But a critical component of this engagement lever is ensuring that managers are held accountable for implementing activities that drive engagement.

Playing the Long Game

Too many organisations front-end load their talent strategy and focus their efforts and resources primarily on attracting and acquiring the right people. But what comes next? A sustained effort of engagement over the lifetime of an employee will result in a workplace that inspires and supports high performance.

Part of the problem lies in the legacy of HR practices we are carrying with us from the industrial era. Performance management is now squarely on the HR hit list for overhaul. I like, for example, the focus on “intent before content,” in performance conversations at work.

According to Brita Goodwin, general manager of people and culture for retail at The Just Group, the idea behind this philosophy is to turn the tables on the typical approach to performance. Rather than focusing on the negative and criticizing employee performance, the performance conversation is reframed in a way that demonstrates the manager’s and organisation’s support of an employee’s growth and success.

At The Just Group, the discussion is now referred to as performance recovery, since the focus is on helping an employee recover their performance so that they can be successful in their role. The ultimate goal is that the process becomes less about managers providing feedback to employees and more about individuals seeking feedback in order to continue to grow.

By diffusing the inherent threat of performance discussions – an important factor when playing the long game – organisations can experience improved employee growth and performance outcomes, which result in an increase in employee engagement.

Staying on the Path to Engagement

There is no easy answer when it comes to how organisations can most effectively create engaging work environments. In my research and discussions with HR thought leaders, however, a few elements have bubbled to the surface for their critical role in employee engagement levels, such as hiring authentic and inspiring leaders that clearly understand their role in engaging employees. Additional important factors include aligning employee performance with the purpose, mission and values of the organisation, establishing open and trusting work relationships, providing employees with challenging and meaningful work, and enabling employees to have an impact.

While each organisation’s approach to improving employee engagement will differ, ensuring these critical components are integrated into a comprehensive talent management strategy will have a tremendous effect on engagement outcomes.


About The Author


Sylvia Vorhauser-Smith
SVP, Global Research , PageUp

Sylvia is a regular speaker in the field of human capital management and neuroscience and drives research and thought-leadership at PageUp. She has more than 25 years of experience in corporate and entrepreneurial business environments, including positions as Head of Selection and Development at Westpac Banking Corporation and Human Resources Manager for Citibank Limited.