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The 10 Pillars of Employee Engagement

What constitutes an “engaged employee”? Read Zest's list of the 10 Pillars of Employee Engagement — highlighting where you can make small changes to achieve big rewards.
Trelise Mansfield
by Trelise Mansfield
on 5 September 2018

862 views

Do your employees care about their work? The answer could have a big impact on your company’s metrics. Profitable businesses with happy customers are likely to stem from engaged employees and high-performing teams, motivated to work hard and drive your business to success.

A 2017 Gallup study found that businesses in the top quartile of employee engagement are 17% more productive and 21% more profitable than those in the bottom quartile (source: Gallup).

So, what constitutes an “engaged employee”? Businesses with high employee engagement come in all different sizes and industries, but they do have a few things in common. Here’s our list of the ten pillars of employee engagement — highlighting where you can make small changes to achieve big rewards.

1. Wellness

For decades, the conventional wisdom was that pressure improves productivity. Now, research shows the opposite may be true. Charles Maslach’s study of Job Burnout reported that heavy workloads result in exhaustion and higher burnout rates (source: Annual Reviews). Stressed employees are more likely to call in sick, and less likely to stay in their jobs, with high replacement costs for employers (source: New York Times).

It’s now clear that wellbeing at work has direct benefits, not just for employees, but for businesses as well. When employees are less stressed, turnover and sick days go down — and there’s a knock-on effect resulting in a happier, more engaged workforce.

What you can do

  • Give employees some flexibility to set their own schedule or telecommute part of the week. Fitting their work schedule around their most productive hours, like morning or evening, is a simple way to improve wellbeing.
  • Cut down on unnecessary stress by setting deadlines well in advance.
  • Simple changes to your office environment can make employees feel that you care about their wellness, like ditching uncomfortable furniture or rethinking office design.
2. Purpose

What do you do when you’re embarking on a big project and you need ‘all hands on deck’?

Pulitzer Prize winner, James McGregor Burns, outlined two opposing kinds of leaders. The first kind, transactional leaders, use rewards and punishments to push their teams. The second kind is transformational: these leaders set an example and instill their employees with a sense of purpose.

Employee engagement comes from intrinsic motivation. It’s a virtuous cycle: the more we have a sense of purpose, the more we can achieve. And that, in turn, makes us feel more motivated and engaged in our work.

In contrast, punishment and threats can reduce employee motivation. And surprisingly, the same is true of rewards. According to Self-Determination Theory, that’s because external motivation makes employees feel they’re being controlled.

What you can do

  • Outline your mission and let employees have some autonomy in how they set their goals.
  • Talk to employees to see if they feel they are working towards a greater purpose alongside their team.
  • Don’t rely on rewards to motivate your team. Rewards are most effective when they’re used to recognize achievement — and praise goes a long way.
3. Goals

Your team is facing a difficult task at work. It’s urgent, but they can’t seem to meet their goals. How do you help them progress? 

Locke and Latham studied goal setting and performance in real working environments. They showed that effective goals meet five criteria: clarity, challenge, commitment, feedback, and task complexity.

To help employees succeed, goals should be specific, and they must be understandable. It’s also crucial to make goals challenging enough — and adjust them when they’re not working as they should.

Even the most complex tasks can be made more manageable when you break them down into several smaller, attainable goals. And when they’re involved in the process of developing their goals, employees have been shown to do better, with a sense of ownership over their work.

What you can do

  • Use the SMART method to develop goals that are clear, attainable, and elevate performance.
  • Formulate OKR at each level — company, team, and individual, and use Zest to track goal progression.
  • Team meetings or sprints are an opportunity to get employees involved in setting goals. Outline the big objective, then let employees define the path to achieving it.
  • Get regular feedback from employees about whether they can manage their tasks and be prepared to reassess if a goal is no longer aligned with your project priorities.
4. Feedback

Giving feedback can be hard. Almost as hard as receiving it. But feedback serves an essential function in any organization, improving performance and helping employees understand their role on the team.

A growing number of employees look forward to receiving regular feedback. Nearly 60% want feedback on a daily or weekly basis. That number rises to 72% among employees in Generation Y (source: LinkedIn, PWC).

Employees work better when managers communicate constructively, and in real-time, about their performance and listen to their concerns. And feedback has a direct bearing on results. A Gallup study of 469 businesses found that when managers receive feedback on their strengths, profitability improves by 8.9% (source: Gallup).

A growing number of Fortune 500 companies are implementing systems for frequent feedback between managers and employees. Adobe replaced their Annual Performance Review system with frequent check-ins, leading to a 30% reduction in their turnover rate (source: Forbes).

What you can do

  • Feedback isn’t just about criticism, it’s also about praise — so don’t be afraid to tell employees when they’re doing something right. Show your employees how to improve their performance with practical examples.
  • Create a culture of feedback by providing opportunities to hear and share ideas, not just between employees and managers but with other team members as well.
  • Ditch annual reviews and set-up a frequent performance evaluation process to encourage regular communication, in person, by phone, or through Zest’s Check-In module.
5. Recognition

When your employees do well, do you thank them right away? In a 10-year study of over 200,000 employees and managers, Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton found that recognition is one of the keys to good management. When managers are effective at recognizing employee contributions, they reduce their turnover rates, improve their results, and raise employee morale (source: Training Journal).

Praise isn’t just good for the recipient. It’s also good for the person who gives it. A survey of 2,700 US workers found that those who have recently recognized a colleague’s work are more engaged and more likely to say they love their jobs (source: Globoforce).

Recognition has such a powerful motivating effect that Gostick and Elton called it a “simple but transformative act.” It’s a simple, cost-free way to boost employee engagement — and ensure that your best people stay on board.

What you can do

  • Make a point of giving co-workers recognition. You can praise them for exceptional performance, but also for the things they do every day for the success of their team.
  • Praise doesn’t just have to come from managers — encouraging peer-to-peer recognition improves teamwork and morale.
  • Use an employee engagement solution, like Zest, to give your coworkers recognition for a job well done.
6. Growth

Maslow’s pyramid of needs is often understood to mean that we care about our material needs above everything else. But American psychologist Clayton Alderfer showed that it’s possible to meet more than one need at once — and the “higher needs” matter more than we might think (source: Alderfer).

Shoe company, Zappos, is consistently ranked as an outstanding place to work. They make it one of their ten core values to help employees “unlock their full potential… [and] achieve a greater level of fulfilment” (source: INC).

Growth is a powerful motivator, and a sign of a productive, engaged employee. The Harvard Business Review defines “thriving” workers as those with “high energy” and “high learning,” actively seeking out new knowledge and skills (source: “Happiness” HBR Emotional Intelligence Series).

Self-fulfillment is an important factor in employee engagement, and it’s one of the reasons why candidates sometimes choose jobs with lower pay. When our jobs give us the opportunity to grow and learn, our engagement and our commitment to the company grow along with us.

What you can do

  • Look for ways that your employees can develop their skills on the job — like specialized training, workshops, or mentorship, and track their progress with Zest.
  • Show employees where and how they can advance their careers by contributing to the company’s growth.
  • Reward cooperative behavior by creating opportunities for employees to exchange skills and ideas across teams.
7. Accomplishment

Do your employees get a sense of accomplishment from their work? Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer analyzed 12,000 diary entries from 238 employees to show that making steady progress on the job boosts engagement and productivity across the board (source: HBR).

Employees who have consistent, meaningful accomplishments, even small ones, show greater creativity, motivation, and relationships with colleagues. The key is to help employees develop a sense of competence, while continuing to face challenges in their work.

What you can do

  • Break down complex tasks so employees can feel a sense of regular progress.
  • Is your team always chasing the clock? Build in enough time to get things done.
  • See failure as a learning opportunity and recognize employees who overcome challenges to find alternate solutions.
8. Employee-Manager Connection

Why do good employees quit? Research conducted by Gallup found that 50% of employees who leave do so because of their managers, supporting the idea that “employees leave managers, not jobs” (source: Gallup).

Management, good and bad, has a powerful effect on employee mood. People who are unemployed are actually less likely to experience negative emotions like stress, anger, and sadness than those who work for bad managers, according to Gallup research in Germany.

The good news? Employee retention, productivity, and engagement all improve with good management. By creating an atmosphere of “psychological safety,” you can help employees feel comfortable sharing ideas and harness the best of their abilities (source: HBR).

What you can do

  • Build trust and connection by getting to know coworkers as whole people.
  • Encourage transparency and set up regular feedback sessions to nip communication problems in the bud.
  • Don’t tolerate bullying, insults, or unsolicited touching — even from “star performers”. Improve productivity and engagement by building “psychological safety” in teams.
  • Look for managers who inspire and motivate their employees to do their best work. Listening skills can make the difference between good and great leaders.
9. Peer Relationships

Friendships at work might look like a distraction. But research shows they can actually improve your company’s profits.

Gallup reports that close work friendships have a surprisingly big effect on performance. Companies where 6 out of 10 employees say they have a best friend at work experience 36% fewer safety incidents and 12% higher profits (that’s compared with companies where only 2 out of 10 employees have best work friendships) (source: Gallup).

Employees don’t need a work bestie to reap the benefits of better working relationships. A recent study by Robert Half showed that good co-worker relationships dramatically improve job satisfaction, making employees 2.5 times more likely to be happy in their current jobs (source: Robert Half).

What you can do

  • Encourage employees to get to know each other. Closer ties can directly help you build better teams.
  • Have lunch with your co-workers. A 2015 Cornell study found that teams who eat together perform better, with twice as much cooperative behaviour (source: Cornell).
  • Good teams aren’t all about “culture fit”. Encourage teams to make the most of their complementary personalities and skills, including their differences.
10. Company Alignment

Do your employees care about your mission? You might be doing a great job of communicating your day-to-day goals, but your company’s values matter too — more than you might think.

Employees who believe in their company’s mission are 72% more productive (source: Institute for the Study of Labour), yet only 41% of employees know what their company stands for and what sets it apart from competitors (source: Gallup).

The most engaged employees are the ones who aren’t just clocking in the hours. They know and share their company’s values, and they feel that their day-to-day work contributes in some way. They’re directly engaged with their organization — like the janitor at NASA who told President John F. Kennedy that his job was “helping send a man to the moon”.

What you can do

  • Don’t shy away from discussing your company’s values. You can discuss them in the recruitment process to ensure you select employees who care about your mission.
  • Give employees a voice in the conversation by regularly engaging them about what the company stands for.
  • Employees tend to disengage when stated values don’t match their experiences day-to-day. Look for ways to align your company values with your management practices — like encouraging innovation or cooperative work.

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