The Main Drivers of Employee Engagement

The employee engagement agenda is a joint priority for line managers and HR.

By Dr. Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge, Founder of Quality & Equality Ltd., and Linda Holbeche, former Research and Policy Director, CIPD

There are two types of employee engagement—emotional commitment and rational commitment —with emotional commitment being four times more powerful than rational commitment in driving employee effort. Employees stay with their organizations when they believe it is in their self-interest (rational commitment). But they exert discretionary effort when they believe in the value of their job, their team, and their organization (emotional commitment).

Some of the common elements of the many definitions of employee en­gagement fall into the following categories:

  • Social: Is this an organization where I feel involved, part of a good team; is my organization serving the community?
  • Intellectual: Am I able to grow? Is my job stretching and interesting? Do I know what’s happening? Do my opinions count?
  • Emotional: Do I care about the organization and feel I belong? Am I valued?

Underpinning these elements are the key principles of voice (am I listened to, am I told what is going on?) and equity (am I treated fairly?). Leadership is implicit in both elements. Similarly the “right” followership is needed; i.e., an adult-adult reciprocal relationship based on mutual needs and benefits.

The MacLeod report summarized the main drivers of employee engage­ment and related leadership practices as follows (MacLeod and Clarke, 2009: 75):

  • Engaging leadership: “Ensures a strong, transparent, and explicit organizational culture that gives employees a line of sight between their job and the vision and aims of the organization.” Such leaders are strategic, anticipatory, proactive, and people focused. They provide a clear strategic narrative about where the organization is going and why, in a way that gives employees information and insight for their own job.
  • Engaging managers: Are more critical in driving effort on a day-to-­day basis. “They offer clarity about what is expected from individual members of staff, what involves some stretch, and much appreciation and feedback/coaching and training. They also treat people as individuals, with fairness and respect and with a concern for employees’ well-being. They also ensure work is designed efficiently and effectively.” In companies that do this well, managers treat people as individuals, as full human beings. In Standard Chartered Retail Bank, for example, the task of managers in engaging employees is summarized as “Know me, focus me, value me.”
  • Employee voice: “Employees feel able to voice their ideas and be listened to, both about how to do their job and in decision-making in their own department, with joint sharing of problems and challenges and a commitment to arrive at joint solutions.” In companies that do this well, there is a constant free flow of ideas up and down and across the organization. That requires managers who are willing to listen to people and are not afraid of relinquishing control.
  • Organization lives the values: “A belief among employees that the organization lives the values, and that espoused behavioral norms are adhered to, resulting in trust and a sense of integrity.” In organizations that do this well, values and behaviors are aligned, creating integrity and trust. Any gap between these creates distrust and cynicism.
  • Organizational purpose: In particular, the nature of the organization’s purpose may have a differen­tiating effect on levels of engagement. Research by Holbeche and Springett (2004) into how people experience meaning at work found that an organ­izational purpose that focuses intensely on customers is more likely to engage staff than those focused on shareholders, profits, or a mix of stake­holder needs. However, it is essential that there is a clear line of sight to this purpose in people’s day jobs if the motivational effect is to be achieved. Bureaucracy and inconsistent behaviors, policies, and practices act as barriers and lead to cynicism and disengagement.

HR/OD Response

The employee engagement agenda is a joint priority for line managers and HR. In particular, HR can help line managers by:

  • Coaching line managers
  • Implementing effective policies for work-life balance, well-being, and diversity
  • Developing inclusive employee voice mechanisms
  • Helping line managers to manage workloads and design roles and work to ensure that people have line of sight to the organization’s purpose and goals

In addition HR must:

Act on employee engagement survey findings. HR brings a method and structure to the system-level data from engagement surveys and other sources such as exit interviews, but the challenge is to individualize this so as not to take a one-size-fits-all approach. So, cut the data based on different groups who share the same (but different from others’) values and needs. Make sure employees know managers take their views seriously, and act on at least the most critical pieces of feedback. This builds trust and shows employees their views are heard and taken seriously.

Challenge poor practice. HR needs to ensure the company values are reflected in the standards set, and that these apply to everyone, including the executive team and the board. HR must have the courage of its convictions in tackling poor standards, especially where there are clear gaps between rhetoric and prac­tice on values.

Develop engaging management and leadership. Bob Montgomery, Organization Development Center of Excellence leader at Lockheed Martin Corporation, provided the following case study. He is responsible for performance management, leadership, and organization development.

Case Study:

Developing Engaging Managers in Lockheed Martin Corporation

Lockheed Martin moves product in times of crisis—the company is the world’s No. 1 military contractor and is firmly on the U.S. defense/government side of the aerospace industry; in fact the U.S. government accounts for about 85 percent of sales. This reliance on the U.S. government is a double-edged sword: Lockheed can avoid turbulence in the commercial aerospace sector, but the company is vulnerable to military spending cuts. As a government contractor, the firm cannot carry heavy overheads. Given the current economic situation facing world governments, the challenge will be to continue to deliver product and operational excellence within an increasingly cost-constrained environment.

Talent Shortages

In common with other organizations in similar industries, Lockheed Martin is facing potential talent shortages in years to come. Lockheed Martin employs a mix of military and civilian staff, and the main professional group is engineers, many of whom are Baby Boomers who have amassed considerable experience and valuable expertise in the company.

Over the next few years, many employees are due to retire; there are worldwide shortages of engineering talent now and more predicted for years to come. Consequently, HR in Lockheed Martin is focused on both retention and on building the talent and leadership pipeline. What helps is that Lockheed Martin is known to be a good employer. The company has received accolades of being one of the top places to work for women, engineers, and minorities. It also is viewed as one of the top 25 companies worldwide in developing leaders.

Leadership as a Culture Change Lever

The organization’s culture has always been results driven, with a conventional mix of military and civilian values and hierarchical management styles. Stereotypically, engineers in management positions are most interested in the technical aspects of the job, rather than the people management aspects. As the organization gears up to deal with today’s more challenging economic conditions, there is growing recognition within the company that the organization’s culture and the nature of management and leadership need to change to equip Lockheed Martin to be more nimble and cost effective while retaining its focus on quality, customer, and innovation.

Bob believes that a shift is needed away from command-and-control management styles to leadership styles that are more focused on getting results through people. Employee surveys and straw polls indicate this, as well. With more limited resources, attempting to carry out the company imperatives without a change of management style is likely to be problematic. As Bob says, “We should be using the intelligence of many, not just the few. We need to create a highly engaged work environment and build the competence of our managers to create that work environment.”

To start this culture shift, Bob Stevens, the CEO of Lockheed Martin, introduced in 2006 a comprehensive leadership process around recruitment, talent management, and develop­ment, known as “Full Spectrum Leadership.” Bob Montgomery argues that attempting to tackle a major shift through just one sub-system, such as training and development, is unlikely to deliver the results needed. What is needed is a whole-system approach (which this one intends to be) in which potentially conflicting sub-systems can be aligned with the strategy.

People are recruited and developed against key leadership competency areas:

  • Shape the future
  • Build effective relationships
  • Energize the team
  • Deliver reality
  • Model personal excellence

There is a 360-degree feedback process that operates from the top management down to first-line supervisors. New recruits are introduced to leadership development from the outset and given a strong orientation in the new approach. As behaviors start to change in the desired direction, Bob Montgomery considers the next stage is to build in stronger accountability for delivery to ensure that managers and leaders “walk the talk”—with goals and objectives that can be measured, monitored, and evaluated.

As he argues, it is dangerous to come in with a set solution. Real success will depend on achieving both congruence with the environment and alignment of the subsystems with these strategic demands. Above all, it will depend on “your ability to adapt and change.”

Dr. Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge is the founder of Quality & Equality Ltd. and the author of many organizational development articles. She speaks, writes, and delivers OD training programs in the UK and was voted one of the 25 most influential thinkers in HR by HR Magazine in 2008.

Linda Holbeche was previously Research and Policy director at the CIPD. She currently is an independent consultant and researcher in the fields of leadership, human resources, change management, and sustainable high performance.

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Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.