Four steps to better employee engagement

Published 29 January 2014 12:13, Updated 30 January 2014 10:39

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Four steps to better employee engagement

There are four ways to get her more excited about working for you.

How did your staff feel about coming to work this morning? Many factors would have influenced whether they felt like digging right in, but one of the most significant factors was almost surely their direct supervisor.

It seems obvious: managers who set their teams up for success, observe them in action, ask for feedback, identify the root causes of employee concerns, and then follow through with meaningful improvements have happier, more engaged employees. Why, then, do senior executives who tout the value of employee engagement so often delegate it to the human resources department? HR serves an important function, but not even the best HR staff is in a position to take the actions required to affect the attitudes of individual employees or teams.

Employee engagement remains a challenge for companies worldwide. Recently, Bain & Co., working in conjunction with Netsurvey, analyzed responses from 200,000 employees across 40 companies in 60 countries and found several troubling trends:

+ Engagement scores decline with employee tenure, meaning that employees with the deepest knowledge of the company are often the least engaged.

+ Engagement scores decline as you go down the organizational chart, so highly engaged senior executives are likely to underestimate the discontent on the front lines.

+ Engagement levels are lowest among sales and service employees, who have the most interactions with customers.

Yet some companies managed to buck these trends. The information technology hosting company Rackspace Inc., for instance, has a mantra of “fanatical” customer support. Energized, motivated “Rackers” put in the discretionary effort that creates a superior experience for customers. In turn, customers reward Rackspace with intense loyalty, contributing to the company’s 25 percent compound annual revenue growth and 48 percent profit growth since 2008.

Rackspace and other leading companies invest heavily in creating a culture of employee engagement. What are their secrets?

Line supervisors, not HR, lead the charge

It’s difficult for employees to be truly engaged if they don’t like or trust their bosses. Netsurvey’s data shows that 87 percent of employees who have high levels of engagement give their direct supervisors high ratings. That’s why it’s critical for supervisors to treat team engagement as a high priority - and why their bosses, the senior executives, can’t merely prescribe rote solutions. Instead, senior leaders should give supervisors the responsibility and authority to earn the enthusiasm, energy and creativity that signal deep employee engagement.

Supervisors learn how to hold candid dialogues with teams

Not every supervisor is a natural at engaging employees, so leading companies provide training and coaching on how to encourage constructive discussions with team members. Trainers prepare supervisors to carefully handle sensitive topics like requests for better pay or worries about outsourcing. The training also stresses the importance of taking the right actions quickly and then telling employees how their input contributed to the improvements.

Supervisors do regular “pulse checks”

Short, frequent and anonymous online surveys (as opposed to one long annual survey) give supervisors a better understanding of team dynamics and a sense of how the team believes customers’ experiences can be improved. What matters most, however, is not the metrics but the resulting dialogue. At AT&T Co., executives don’t distribute survey scores to line supervisors and their bosses; instead, they show only trends and verbatim feedback. This signals that discussing and addressing the root causes of issues - and seeing steady progress - matters more than an absolute score.

Teams rally around the customer

Call center representatives, sales specialists, field technicians and others on the front line know intimately which aspects of the business annoy or delight customers. The companies that have high employee engagement tap that knowledge by asking employees how the company can earn more of their customers’ business and build the ranks of customer promoters. And they don’t just ask; they also listen to the answers, take action and let their employees know about it.

For example, AT&T has built a digital infrastructure enabling all employee suggestions to be logged online. A small, dedicated team regularly reads and triages the suggestions, sending each promising one to a designated leader or expert who is obligated to consider it and respond. Employees can see the progress of each suggestion and log comments. Other companies have developed systems that enable employees to vote on their colleagues’ suggestions, with the best ideas getting the attention of the leadership team.

Most companies today spend tremendous amounts of time and effort measuring and addressing issues related to employee engagement. But the results are generally underwhelming. To get a higher return on these resources, it’s time for executives to turn their current approach upside down. Open up the dialogue between employees and their supervisors. Put teams in charge, and let the center provide support. That’s what it takes to help your employees feel so fired up that they approach their jobs with energy, enthusiasm and creativity.

(Rob Markey is co-author of the book “The Ultimate Question 2.0: How Net Promoter Companies Thrive in a Customer-Driven World.” Markey is a partner and director in Bain & Co.’s New York office and leads the firm’s Global Customer Strategy and Marketing practice.Jon Kaufman, a Bain & Co. partner based in New York, contributed to the research and analysis mentioned in this article.)

©2014 Harvard Business Review.

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