Employee Engagement – The ties that bind

A lot has been written about employee engagement. There are blogs galore and articles abounding the Internet about this topic. Over the recent years, employee engagement surveys have become critical tools for determining how happy and connected employees feel with the company. Some of these survey rankings are also mechanisms for companies to build their brand amongst their stakeholders.

As I see it, employee engagement is a formal term for the connection or attachment that an employee has for his company that makes him want to not only continue working for the company, but also visualize himself in the company’s future. Note that the key word here is “want”. Employees do stick on for long periods but that does not mean that they are necessarily engaged or that they are willing to commit themselves to the job or the company. Having worked for 20 years spanning five companies, I can say this for sure: So long as I can see myself as part of the company’s near future up to 3 years, AND feel optimistic about it, I’m an engaged employee.

The hooks of engagement

So what makes one feel a sense of attachment towards the company’s present and future? There are actually five “hooks” that attach us to the company. Most of us need more than one hook to keep us attached! employee-engagement

Brand and Image

This hook is true for well-established large companies or companies that have recently created a buzz with their innovative ideas. Some employees feel a sense of pride when talking to the world outside about their company. It’s the pride of being associated to the brand and the image projected by the company.

Job and Role

Individuals who have mapped out a career development plan for themselves usually get hooked with the right kind of job description and role. They feel excited about the learning opportunities in store and look forward to gaining some skills.

Team and Synergy

People who love working with other people usually look for a work environment where they can make friends. This is also true about the kind of leadership they experience. A good boss and supportive colleagues are the top two items on their list. Give them both and they stay hooked.

Culture and Values

People-oriented employees who seek to grow into leadership positions highly favor companies with a positive employee-friendly culture. It is a well-known fact that companies with a great work culture have great leadership. These employees look for harmony and role models within the company, and like working for people they could look up to, or someone like who they could aspire to become. Companies with a strong work culture and values are also those that promote a culture of recognizing and appreciating committed employees over and above high performers.

Outlook and Growth

Growth could be in terms of compensation, vertical or lateral promotions, or diverse roles that help build the employee’s repertoire. Ambitious individuals usually scan the horizon for possibilities of growth. Even more important would be the forward-thinking practices that the company follows or new technologies that the company adopts that would provide the employee that continued growth.

Employee engagement cannot be faked

Perhaps the most underlying hook that truly builds trust and loyalty within their employees is the power of intent. Employees can see through quick-fix policies or stop-gap arrangements. Whether it is building the culture or defining the strategy or instilling values, a company would need to invest a good two to three years to really bring about a change that is deep-rooted and all-pervasive. A closer look at the five hooks reveals that it takes different kinds of leadership at different levels and of different competencies to create those hooks. It cannot be innovation alone or culture alone that can engage employees. Employee engagement is a commitment by the company that is sensed by their employees, who in turn demonstrate their commitment by not only continuing to perform, but also act as ambassadors for the organization.

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Are you visible?

As a coach, I get to talk to many aspiring individuals who express a desire to get selected for managerial positions. They are usually people with significant experience in their core function and are eager to grow into a more visible role. A majority of these people have also expressed unhappiness in being passed over by the management for someone (in their opinion) less skilled or less experienced. “It’s as though I’m invisible!”

It’s a noisy, overcrowded workplace

It’s become an information bombardment at the workplace over the past decade. Emails, instant messages, online notifications, online meeting have facilitated the growth of global organizations where employees communicate without seeing each other. As a result we have too many desk managers who manage teams from their cubicles rather than walking around and meeting people face to face.

So as a manager, among 130 emails, which one do I read and respond to? In my periodic face-to-face employee interactions, which employees leave a lasting impression in my mind? How do I know who really did the work and did it the best? And most of all, who to my eye, is the one to watch?

The attention-grabbers

We all have seen them. The ones who talk the most. The ones who laugh the loudest. The ones who make sure you know about everything they do. We have seen them in school. Teachers usually love them as they are the “know-it-alls” and the ones that raise their hands or assist the teacher in erasing the blackboard. They know the knack of making the teacher feel special. Take yourself for example. Who would you notice? The students who complete their work quietly or the ones that announce their progress to the teachers?

As humans we are fallible. No matter how non-judgmental or discerning we try to be, we do get drawn towards those who make us look and feel good.

Managers seek solidarity and support. Some managers like yes-men, some admire those who ask questions, some appreciate those who chase results and make them look good.

So how does an employee get her manager to sit up and really take a look at her capabilities and her accomplishments?

Five tips for becoming more visible

It isn’t easy trying to grab attention when you are naturally attention-averse. In my growing years I was taught the virtue of modesty. “Make your work speak for you”, “Do your duty and you will reap the fruits eventually”, “To minimize your achievements, talk about them!” These were some of the words of wisdom drilled into me. It took me many years of lost opportunities, acute disappointment, and hidden resentment to realize the secret are of actually making people take notice of my work.

Here are a few tips based on my experience that have helped me tremendously over the years.

Rise to the occasion

Rather than thinking of how good you are in your role, think about what is it that your manager needs? Is there a meaty project coming your team’s way with no one to coordinate it? Is there a scarcity of people and more work than the manager can handle? Is there a specific skill requirement that the team needs? Look at how you could position your current skills to meet the need. The idea here is to make a significant impact at the right time. An effort that will be a huge win for the team. Once you have worked out the idea in your mind, approach your manager with your proposal.

Stick your neck out

A manager likes people who participate, respond quickly and positively. Be willing to erase the blackboard. You could volunteer to mentor new entrants, help with some administrative reports, or even train your peers on a required skill.

How many times in a class did you know the answer to a question but were afraid to raise your hand? We refrain from volunteering out of fear. Fear of being ridiculed, fear of criticism, fear of change, or fear of failure. A manager’s role is full of risks. If you want to become a manager, you need to overcome your apprehension and demonstrate to your manager the ability to take risks and learn something new. It’s easier to blame an overenthusiastic colleague for “hogging the limelight” rather than trying something new or daring. Ask yourself – “What is stopping ME from volunteering for that complex assignment?”

Express! Express!

The easiest way to get attention is to speak up. Ask questions during team meetings. Come up with suggestions. Appreciate a colleague for his help. Thank your manager for supporting you. Express your views on a solution offered. Initiate and conduct meetings to encourage conversations. Communication skills amount to 80% of a leader’s role. Expressing or articulating is a great way of demonstrating your communication skills to your manager. However note that it is important to communicate assertively and positively if you want to be noticed for the right reasons!

Stop trying to be perfect

As an individual contributor, you are used to being in control of your output. You are so good at your job that you can easily spot defects or deviations. In contrast, leadership is a very subjective role. A manager learns a lot by trial and error. Mostly error. Error in judgment, error in estimation, error in planning, you name it! It is not possible to grow as a leader without making these mistakes. However, these mistakes help a leader learn and grow. Are you willing to make errors AND accept blame?

Ask for it!

It isn’t a nice feeling being passed over for an opportunity you have been waiting for. Oprah Winfrey has a nice quote for it. “You get in life what you have the courage to ask for.” Quite a few of us, especially women, don’t ask for what we really want. We hope someone observes us and appreciates us and gives us what we want. I have been guilty of this as well. Expecting someone to have mind-reading skills is frankly illogical! Your manager may have observed your good work, but does he know of your ambition to become a leader? Approach him and explain to him what you really want. Ask him how to go about it. Let him know how you intend to support him towards the team’s goals.

It’s a networked world after all

The global corporate workplace is no longer a simple layer of hierarchies. With dotted line reporting and matrix reporting structures, it is more possible to get connected with various other teams. It is not only important to get noticed within the team, but also across cross-functional groups. This is especially true if you want to grow as a manager. Volunteer for employee committees, social causes, or other group activities. Work-life balance is always a challenge for working parents. However at a time when you really want to get noticed and grow, you may want to stretch your schedule a bit to accommodate these initiatives.

Modesty does not mean keeping silent about your accomplishments. You don’t have to brag or exaggerate your capabilities. Good managers can see through the hyperbole. Be honest and objective, yet express your career goals.

Finally, if you do feel that you don’t have the room for huge additional responsibilities at this point in your life, then don’t resent that colleague who got that promotion. Be happy for him. You will get your chance too.