Engagement, pt 4: Managing for Engagement

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Long overdue, we are finally back to the topic of work engagement – and the final part of the series. During the spring, we have covered the nature of the phenomenon, its measurement, and the three broad states that seem to fuel engagement. Now, we are going to be even more concrete. How do you increase engagement among your employees?

Actually, you might object to the saying “increase employees’ engagement”, on at least two grounds. First, as we have learned, engagement is an inner, motivational state, and as such it cannot be increased in a direct way by organizations. What we can do is to create the best possible preconditions and hope they will translate into engagement. Second, when managers and HR say they want to “increase employees’ engagement”, it sounds a bit like they are expecting a free lunch. Just make everyone more engaged, and business will run even better. However, it is far from that simple.

The fact is; engagement requires quite a lot in terms of leadership and management, far beyond the addition of some more feedback or training offers. Remember the definition: Engaged employees bring their head, hands, and heart to work. They care deeply about the result and are highly energetic. This type of employee is prepared to work hard, but is also sensitive to some of the practices and structures that still often prevail in conventional organizations. That is; if you want engaged employees, you will have to be prepared to provide a management- and leadership style that will maintain this engagement. Here are some of the factors that research has found to be crucial:

  • Reduce all unnecessary bureaucracy. Sparking and maintaining work engagement in an environment characterized by a lot of rigid procedures and badly designed processes is close to impossible. Of course, the degree of structure and rules that is “too much” varies a lot from setting to setting, but the general rule of keeping bureaucracy down applies in most cases (Delaney & Royal, 2017).
  • Increase decision latitude. Ever wondered why entrepreneurs often score the highest of all groups on work engagement? One vital factor is their ability – and responsibility – to make all the important decisions for their work. Even though a hired employee can seldom be given that immense freedom, increasing their mandate to act is usually a strong recipe for engagement (Frese, 2009). However, this requires that the competence to make those decisions is in place – otherwise there is risk of unhealthy stress instead (Crawford et al., 2010).
  •  Encourage own initiatives – for real. This often-stated advice seems simple in theory, but often turns out tricky in reality. Many of the talents I meet as part of my research lament the fact that their employer keeps calling for own ideas, but when those are brought to the manager, they get shot down. The reason for this is usually the tension between the creativity of engaged employees and middle managers’ need for control and structure. This is sometimes the making of individual managers, but might just as well be a product of how the company is organized. Are there structural or incentives-based obstacles to letting employees try their own ways and ideas? Are there a lot of administrative hassles involved in trying something out (Crawford et al., 2010)? In that case, real engagement might prove difficult to attain.
  • Be prepared to manage emotion. As repeatedly stated in this series; an engaged employee brings their whole person to work. When you are emotionally invested in what you do, it is only natural that feelings will come to show (Saks & Gruman, 2014). In organizations with more of a bureaucratic tradition, this is not always expected, and managers may not be equipped to handle it. This is not to say that managers should act as therapists (that never ends well), but there needs to be a toolbox for how to handle the conflicts, frustration, sadness, and performance anxiety that may result from caring deeply about your work.

There, some central aspects of managing for engagement, illustrating that engagement is indeed no free lunch – for many organizations, it requires a re-orientation of management practices towards more employee autonomy, radical encouragement of new ideas, less strict managerial control, and a leadership that can cater also for emotions in the workplace. Bottom line: Engagement can potentially bring substantial gains to the organization, but they require organizations to do their homework management-wise.

 

Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/absintheboy/

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