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How To Improve Employee Engagement In The Digital Era

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Despite all the research showing that employee engagement leads to improved business results, only 16% of employees experience the necessary conditions for engagement, such as “a clear sense of purpose, a commonly held notion of what’s valuable or important, feelings of psychological safety, and confidence about the future,” according to Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall in Harvard Business Review. Of course, better business results aren’t the only reason companies should focus on employee engagement. As Kevin Kruse points out in his book Employee Engagement 2.0, engagement makes people’s lives better, not just their work, creating transformative results.

Kruse’s handy phrase, “Great leaders Communicate GReAT” highlights the crucial factors of Communication, Growth, Recognition and Trust that underlie employee engagement. Using apps and other software tools can make it easier to support manager development at scale and make the changes that will engage more employees more quickly. I had the opportunity to interview Jim Barnett, CEO of Glint, about how automated platforms can support good managerial practice in areas like psychological safety, recognition and trust. These comments have been edited for clarity and space.

Liz Kislik: What would you say to senior executives who don’t really care how their employees feel?

Jim Barnett: There are leaders who don’t care about their people and yet somehow deliver great results. But that’s not the case with most leaders in most companies. We’ve been doing this for over six years and our data is very clear about the value of having highly engaged employees and their impact on things like attrition, stock market results, patient safety and hospital readmission rates. So I would tell them, just look at the data! More engaged employees deliver better business results. And one of the ways to have more engaged employees is to build more inclusive environments, more diverse environments and teams with psychological safety.

Kislik: Why is it so hard for companies to provide psychological safety, and how does that get in the way of employee engagement?

Barnett: We have enough companies asking enough questions of enough people over enough time that we can see distinct correlation between the themes of psychological safety, inclusive environments and employee engagement. It’s all about creating an environment and team where it’s safe for people to take interpersonal risks and be accepted for being oneself. Our culture doesn’t necessarily encourage high levels of authenticity. People haven’t necessarily been taught to create inclusion or psychological safety, so being authentic and being yourself can be uncomfortable at times.

Discomfort comes from fear, anger, sadness. One of the things we try to do in society is to mask or deflect discomfort. I’ll reach for chocolate; I’ll have a drink or I’ll stop talking to this person. Learning to create psychological safety, authenticity, inclusion often means having to learn some new skills. That’s why it’s challenging for some teams to achieve high levels [of performance]. The right corporate culture will drive curiosity and respect others, welcome occasional failures and focus more on the importance of learning and growth, not on blame and criticism.

Kislik: How important are employees’ relationships with their managers as opposed to whatever else is going on in the organization?

Barnett: It’s not black-and-white. Managers do have an outsized impact on an employee’s experience. But our data actually show that people leave companies for a variety of reasons, including growth opportunities and the company’s prospects as well as the culture. People will struggle through with a mediocre manager if they love the culture, have a deep sense of meaning, feel like they’re growing and thriving in their careers, and feel like the company’s got great prospects. On the other hand, if any one of those things gets too far out of balance, and you’ve got a manager people don’tlike, who creates an unsafe environment, that’s going to have a big impact on employee engagement.

A large percentage of managers have potential. If you give them management training and tools that help them understand the engagement levels of the team, you can help them grow significantly.

Kislik: What would some of those tools be?

Barnett: One example would be our strengths and opportunities module. Managers log in and see their dashboard and scores. The system alerts them to hot spots in their relative strengths and opportunities, and they can click on ‘What can I do to get better at this?’ Let’s say recognition is something they have to improve. If they have low recognition scores, they’d be trained in how to give more and more frequent formal and informal recognition. We give them external materials and links so they can understand how to get better at feedback and recognition. They might take action by calling a team meeting and showing them a report they downloaded. The bulk of managers are logging in, and their results show that they’re doing something different.

“But fundamentally it isn’t about the score. It’s about having conversations with your team. The system was never designed to replace conversations. So as important as it is for managers to read about their developmental areas and to take action in those areas, it’s equally important for them to meet with their teams, talk about where they are, collaborate on what they want to focus on, and take one step forward as a group. We use an ACT framework to encourage all managers to Acknowledge by meeting with their team and acknowledging where they are today. C is for Collaborateon next steps, and then they Take one step forward. The one step forward is extremely important because people who don’t believe action will be taken are seven times more likely to report being disengaged compared to those who believe action will be taken.

Every business wants to achieve better results, and countless studies show that employee engagement is a critical factor. When we invest in developing cultures and managerial relationships that provide psychological safety and a sense of mutual purpose, employees take note. When we build cultures worth participating in, most employees will want to stay and contribute.

Onward and upward —


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