As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it seems appropriate to reflect on the dramatic impact that tragic event had on the way Americans live and work. For the first time since Pearl Harbor, we felt real vulnerability at home—a sense that our world could end in an instant.
Among the baby-boomer generation, the effect was particularly profound. Ranging in age from 50 to 55 at the time, boomers dominated the senior leadership ranks. They had devoted their lives to building successful careers, but now they began to seek out more balance and re-assess what factors really engaged them at work.
In the last decade, the boomers have been influenced even further in this direction by Generation Y — a cohort focused on finding meaning in every aspect of their lives. It’s no longer enough for work to provide the means to pursue your real interests and passions; work must fulfill them in and of itself.
The search for meaning at work has forced senior business leaders to focus on creating cultures that engage people at a fundamental level. This isn’t just about reducing turnover, though that certainly may be one of the outcomes. It’s about bringing real meaning to the working lives of employees.
Employee Engagement is Good Business
The good news is that the business benefits of an engaged workforce are clear. They work longer – whether from home or in the office, think more creatively, and collaborate more effectively. Indeed, when a job becomes more than just a job, the elusive quality known as discretionary output goes way up:
- In 2009, a survey by Hewitt Associates found that companies with high levels of workforce engagement had shareholder returns 19% above average, while those with low levels had returns 44% below average.
- A Gallup study of company performance during the 2008 recession found organizations with highly engaged workforces were much less likely to see a decline in earnings.
- McKinsey’s Organizational Health Index identified superior employee engagement as the most important indicator of company performance.
What Does Engagement Look Like?
The 2011 Employee Engagement Report from Blessing White defines highly engaged employees:
“These employees are at the apex where personal and organizational interests align. They contribute fully to the success of the organization and find great satisfaction in their work. They are known for their discretionary effort and commitment. When recruiters call, they cordially cut the conversation short.”
Engagement Begins at the Top
Zappos chief executive Tony Hsieh doesn’t offload the responsibility for his company culture to the HR department. He thinks about it all the time. For Hsieh, engagement isn’t just about values exercises and meaningless plaques that end up in a desk drawer.
But every company culture is different. What works for Zappos likely won’t work at Lockheed Martin. Senior leadership need to identify what your workforce wants out of their jobs and their careers—and then work with HR to ensure that your culture reflects those values.
Ongoing Feedback and Communication
To feel engaged, employees need to know where they stand at all times. Leaders need to continuously inform them:
- Where the organization is headed
- How they fit into these plans
- What’s expected of them as individual contributors
Walk the Talk
Business leaders must embody the cultural values they expect from their team. In overt and quiet ways, these values will filter down the organizational chart and influence the way managers deal with their employees at all levels. Leaders need to coach their direct reports to develop these values and behaviors so they can cascade throughout the organization.
According to the Blessing White study, trust in the CEO has twice the immediate impact on employee engagement as trust in an immediate manager.
More importantly, belief in senior leaders translates into the discretionary output that separates mediocre companies from the standouts. Employees who believe in the vision and values of their CEO will stay longer, work harder, and perform at a higher level. Those who don’t likely won’t leave, but they will do the minimum required to keep their jobs—and reserve their passions for pursuits outside the office.
This is the first in a series of three posts on how companies can improve performance through engaging their employees.