Here’s a chicken/egg question for you: Does high engagement among employees and managers drive organizational success, or is it the other way around?

It’s new data from Gallup that has me asking. The venerable polling organization reports that as hiring has increased in the U.S. over the past four years, so also has self-reported engagement on the part of employees — especially managers and executives.

Managerial engagement surges
Gallup said that overall, 30% of the 150,000+ employees they surveyed for 2012 said they were engaged in their jobs, compared with 28% in 2009. The rise in engagement was particularly strong among managers and executives, surging to 36% from 26%.

Meantime, 40% of managers said their organizations were adding to their workforce, compared with just 26% in 2009. Reinforcing the trend, just 18% said they were cutting headcount now, compared with 30% in 2009.

So what’s the direction of the relationship between these two phenomena, increased engagement >->-> stronger hiring, or vice versa?

Could go either way
I’m going to disappoint you here with an equivocal answer. That’s because even Gallup admits it doesn’t know for sure which leads to which.

The polling organization says two things. First, “It is possible that employees are more engaged because of their organization’s success or more disengaged because of their organization’s lack of progress or the fear of layoffs.” But on the other hand, Gallup notes, according to recent research, “employee engagement predicts financial performance more strongly than financial performance predicts employee engagement.”

Let’s stop a minute to remember why we care about employee engagement. It’s because engaged employees are deeply involved in and enthusiastic about their work, and are actively contributing to their organization. Disengaged employees, by contrast, are doing the minimum they need to do to keep their jobs. Obviously managers want to increase the number of the former and reduce the number of the latter.

Working for improvement
So what conclusions can managers profitably draw? I see two:

  • Irrespective of any specific data about hiring or organizational success, there are actions you can take over time to improve employee engagement. These include demonstrating your competence, proving your trustworthiness and creating a “safe haven” where employees can honestly strive without fear of undue, unfair or unexpected consequences.
  • But there are also episodic actions you can take to improve engagement, actions that are suggested — although not proved — by the data. Gallup’s latest report suggests that one of these actions may be letting employees know loud and clear when your organization is hiring, as well as trumpeting other measures of success like increased sales and/or profits.

To sum up: Building employee engagement is a long-haul strategic process. But you can try to help it along with some short-term tactical boosterism. And because you’re more likely to feel personally engaged these days, per paragraph 3, a booster may be just what you feel like!

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