What Managers Can Do to Improve Employee Engagement
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What Managers Can Do to Improve Employee Engagement

Why do so many employees fail to give, or refuse to give, any effort above what’s required by their job description? According to a series of studies by the Gallup organization and others, fully 85% of employees will not willingly go beyond the call.

That’s a sobering statistic for employers. If you’re concerned that the employees who report to you might fit this bill, you might want to know why, and what — if anything — you can do about it.

A study from the Hay Group, a unit of Korn Ferry, lists eight factors that cause employees to disengage from their work. Three of these are especially powerful, and are driven by destructive internal narratives that employees too often embrace.

To maximize employee engagement, combat these 3 destructive narratives

Destructive Narrative #1: ‘I’m underutilized’

People are strongly motivated — or demotivated — at work by whether they believe their skills and abilities are being appropriately used. In fact, Hay says this is the top motivator of all. Apparently nothing galls employees as much as thinking their manager doesn’t know about or care to use their talents.

Now it may be that some of your employees assess their talents more favorably than you do. To deal with the “I’m underutilized” narrative, you don’t have to give these people assignments you’re pretty certain they can’t handle. What you can do is show them how their work, even if relatively low-level, contributes to the achievement of company goals. It’s easy for employees to forget the significance of their job, especially if it’s repetitious. Letting them know their work is critical to the bigger picture can help.

On the other hand, if any of your true talents think they’re underutilized, you need to rapidly reassess the way you deal with these folks. They’re the ones who are most likely to leave for greener pastures where they can flourish, unless you quickly start giving them challenging work that will develop them and help them get promoted.

Destructive Narrative #2: ‘I’m invisible’

It’s all well and good to give employees a level of responsibility that squares with their abilities. But what if, once you’ve slotted them into a meaningful position, you fail to notice what they do with it?

This happens more often than managers would like to think. And it can happen even with employees whom you do notice, if you haven’t communicated that fact adequately. Adequately means saying more than “nice work” every so often. It means acknowledging how their abilities and drive have helped them achieve specific results that are valuable to you and the organization.

So if an employee spent, say, two consecutive weekends working to complete an urgent task, you’d want to say more than “good job.” You’d want to say, “We needed this done right, and on time, and your persistence helped us get there. Thank you.”

Destructive Narrative #3: ‘I’m not making a difference’

Beyond responsibility and recognition, employees need to feel that their work has an impact for good in the organization and/or the world. This feeling may be relatively easy to impart if an employee’s work is creating “green” products to save the planet, or working with disadvantaged youth, but harder to instill if their main duty is filling up spreadsheets with data.

You, as the manager, need to find the meaning in what your employees are doing, even if they can’t, and relate it to them in a compelling way. That data entry person, for instance, might be a critical link in a healthcare information system, ensuring that thousands of patients don’t suffer from serious drug interactions due to conflicting prescriptions from different doctors.

Your responsibility as a leader

All these narratives are in the heads of employees, and maybe you aren’t responsible for putting them there. People’s perceptions sometimes don’t correspond with reality as others see it.

But even if that’s the case, you as the manager are the one who has to defuse and dispel these narratives. That’s because you’re the one whose ability to get things done through other people takes a hit when those people are giving a bare-minimum effort; and you’re the one who has the power to rewrite the story they’re telling themselves.


(This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module, “Employee Engagement: Tapping into discretionary effort,”  based on research by Don Rheem of E3Solutions and a study by the Hay Group.)

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