The Challenge of Employee Engagement.
By Enda Larkin
Thursday, 5th November 2009
During an ideas session on how to improve business performance, one talented, but extremely de-motivated employee, surprisingly suggested several positive things which would make a difference.

When later asked why he had not previously told his manager about these ideas, his response was fairly blunt, but very revealing: "I don't get paid from the neck up".

Here was a guy who was so disengaged that he saw his role as being to do, but not to think. You might wonder why he stayed, or even why he was allowed to stay, but the fact was, he was there and was not contributing as much as he could to the hotel.

Although an extreme case, he is far from alone; respected national and international research commonly shows that as few as 30% of employees are actively engaged in the companies they work for. It is a disturbing thought and not something to be ignored; lack of employee engagement is a hidden cost and it is simply not possible to achieve business goals or deliver excellence unless employees roll in behind that ambition.

Employee engagement has emerged as an important issue in recent years and whilst it might be a current ‘in' term, it's not necessarily a totally original concept. Issues like teambuilding, motivation, and empowerment have always been important and engagement is essentially an umbrella concept which pulls all these strands together.

An engaged employee is not only happy in their job though, but translates that satisfaction into higher productivity. They believe in what the business is trying to achieve, are eager to help realise those goals and play an active role in making the company a success. Their job has meaning for them and they see a real purpose in what they do.

As such, employee engagement involves addressing any issue which impacts on an individual's ability or willingness to give their all and concerns a range of factors such as individual motivation and commitment, team effectiveness, overall employee satisfaction and productivity. But what can be practically done to more fully engage employees?

This is perhaps one of the most commons questions that I get asked; in fact, it has arisen in one shape or form on every leadership course that I have ever delivered. So much so that it has become something of a personal quest to try and define what the key drivers of engagement are. There is no magic pill of course, but from comparing best practices seen in companies where engagement is high, I have come up with a list of twelve factors which all leaders need to be concerned with:

It should be obvious that no one thing will, on its own, fully address the engagement issue, but I have noticed that when leadership is strong, engagement levels tend to be higher, so effective leadership is certainly the most critical first step.

As well as their own capabilities, to really engage their people, leaders also need to consider the remaining drivers:

Culture – Culture is intangible for sure but it has a major impact on the feel or climate in any organization. Whilst there is no ‘right' culture, there are certain environments which build engagement, whereas others do the opposite and leaders can play an important role in building a culture which draws employees in rather than pushes them away.

Composition – relates to the make-up of teams and all leaders need to pay close attention to how they recruit people into existing teams. Employees do not necessarily all have to like each other, nor will they, but there must be a general ‘fit' between all members; otherwise it is hard to engage them because who wants to work alongside a bunch of people with whom you have little or nothing in common.

Clarity – in this context means ensuring that employees understand both aspirations and expectations. Aspirations relate to the big picture and, as a basic building block of engagement, leaders need to help employees to fully understand where the organization is going and how they can contribute to that. Clarity is also required as to what is expected of employees, as nothing will destroy engagement faster than conflicting directions or shifting roles and responsibilities.

Competence – contributes to engagement in a number of ways. First, most employees want to build their skills and talents at work, so to increase engagement, leaders need to ensure that there are relevant and regular opportunities for personal development. Equally, all employees should be similarly competent at what they are expected to do. If not, others in the team have to take up the slack and this creates resentment, or worse still conflict, which can chip away at engagement.

Cooperation – levels of cooperation in teams are both a driver of engagement and a reflection of it. When people work well together they build bonds and trust increases and this in turn improves general engagement levels because most people prefer to work in collaborative environments.

Control – controlling how individuals behave within teams is critical to engagement because when certain team members are allowed to step out of line without consequence, this serves as a de-motivating factor for engaged employees as they question why they should bother. Equally, too controlling an environment stifles engagement because people sense a lack of freedom and autonomy.

Communication – is always key to the levels of engagement seen and where communication is regular, open, two-way and more importantly effective, employees tend to be more engaged.

Challenge – for most employees having a sense of challenge in their work is vital to how engaged they feel with the hotel. When work feels repetitive or mundane, employees naturally feel less engaged so leaders need to find ways to introduce a sense of challenge for employees.

Conflict – the manner in which conflict is managed can have a major impact on how engaged employees are likely to be. Constructive conflict, which leads to new ideas and better solutions, should be encouraged, but well managed, so that employees feel that they can speak their minds or contribute in an appropriate manner. Destructive conflict, on the other hand, which adds no value should be dealt with promptly by the leader; a failure to do so will impact engagement levels as most people hate to work in a poisoned atmosphere.

Compensation – in the broadest sense is about people feeling rewarded for the contribution they make. Pay and conditions of course an important element in this, but things like constructive feedback and positive recognition when deserved are just as powerful in terms of building engagement.

Change – how change is managed can also impact on the levels of engagement seen. Too little change can result in stagnation which destroys engagement, yet too much of it, or too much meaningless change can simply frustrate employees and causes them to disengage.

Apart from raising their own game, the best leaders also pay close attention to these factors because they know that in doing so they will not only build engagement levels but more importantly that this will in turn lead to greater productivity and ultimately better results.

They understand that nothing can ever truly be achieved if employees do not buy into the hotel's aims and that lifting each individual's level of engagement, even by a small amount, can make a big difference; they really believe in the value of individual contributions or as Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, once said, ‘If you think you're too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito'.

About the Author

Enda Larkin has over 25 years experience in the hotel industry having held a number of senior management positions in Ireland, UK and the US.

In 1994 he founded HTC Consulting, a Geneva based firm, which specialises in working with enterprises in hospitality and tourism. Since that time, he has led numerous consulting projects for public and private sector clients throughout Europe and the Middle East.

He is author of Ready to Lead? (Pearson/Prentice Hall) and How to Run a Great Hotel (How to Books) which expands on the themes highlighted in this article. He may be contacted via www.htc-consult.com or at info@htc-consult.com
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