Beyond the buzz word - Engagement

It’s fair to say that ‘employee engagement’ has become quite the buzz word(s) in organisations’ quest for a competitive advantage.

But what is engagement really and what impact does it have on performance? Furthermore, how do we drive employee engagement at a time when our own wants and needs are evolving right in front of us? This blog will attempt to scratch the surface on what is a much larger topic.

A 2008 report by Towers Perrin defines engagement as ‘the extent to which employees ‘go the extra mile’ and put discretionary effort into their work.’ But what dictates this effort? And what has one individual feel connected to their organisation, whilst another in the same business feels disconnected? The research would suggest ten key things:

  1. The extent to which we involve employees in formulating the purpose or goals that they themselves will become responsible for achieving. It should come as no surprise that we’re more engaged and motivated to achieve success when we’re working towards a goal that we see ourselves in. That we believe is meaningful and achievable - whilst being stretching enough to challenge us and ensure that we’re learning, developing and improving. Where time does not allow for this two-way dialogue between leader and employee, seek out opportunities to involve your people in the process, ensuring that change is both bottom-up and top-down. You might find that by doing so, people are more willing to meet in the middle.

  2. Whether we make high performance worthy of employees’ attention and provide honest and fair feedback on where an individual is in relation to this standard. It is fair to say that not everyone is motivated to become an organisation’s next CEO - and that is absolutely fine. What does help engage people and ensure that organisations make informed decisions however, is an understanding of what it takes to progress within a given business, and what awaits them should they reach this level. Trust is built upon the extent to which individuals and organisations are reliable, credible, capable of creating meaningful relationships, and have low levels of self-interest. Recognise that what you articulate is only part of the engagement conversation; your people need to experience exactly the same thing if they are to be engaged.

  3. How visible you can make progress day-in, day-out. At a time when projects are often becoming longer, more ambiguous and complex than ever before, it is critical that we are paying attention to the process, as well as the outcome. Co-create key milestones for your project and commit to celebrating these - much like you would do other client commitments. Take the time to acknowledge the team member who has been struggling with a particular client, but who has just had a really positive interaction. Recognise the presenter who has obviously taken your feedback onboard and updated their slides to make them more accessible.

  4. In this regard, foster authentic recognition of those behaviours that you desire and want to see more of within a given team or organisation. Similarly, quickly address those that do not align with the purpose or goals that you have co-created. There is a lot more to engagement than the end of year party or HR led performance conversations. Appreciate that the little things can go a long way when they come from a place of authenticity and vulnerability. Rapport is built on a sense of risk taking. Only when we share our honest opinions and feelings can we create long lasting, sustainable relationships that thrive off constructive conflict.

  5. Our ability to identify the moments that matter and recognise that every contact leaves a trace - the trainee on her first day, the partner celebrating 25 years in the firm or the paralegal who has had their supervision session cancelled three times. These are all likely to be moments that matter to your respective people and critically, their engagement levels. Whilst rescheduling might be in your best interest, what does it tell your people about how much you value their needs and development? Recognise that every interaction you do (or do not), have with your people will have an impact and leave a trace. Ensure that it is the impact you aspire to have.

  6. Whether we can develop and maintain a network of relationships for ourselves and facilitate the creation of networks for others - both in person and virtually. It is all too easy to go from Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting in our current circumstances, but how can we create opportunities to stop and connect on a more personal level? At a time when we’re all potentially quizzed out, it feels particularly important that we find a way of bringing our whole selves to our meetings, addressing our psychological needs, wants and motivators, as well as those professional and practical points that simply must get done. By protecting time at the start or end of every meeting to ‘check in’, we can ensure that we’re removing the interference that often prevents us from realising our potential. Furthermore, by learning more about one another, we can spot opportunities to make introductions and broaden our networks.

  7. How much we are leveraging our own and others’ strengths, rather than focussing on weaknesses. Whilst there are different schools of thoughts on what approach is more successful, it’s fair to argue that we’re all left feeling more energised when our strengths are recognised, acknowledged and acted upon. Where possible, provide your people with the opportunity to share their strengths, and work towards incorporating these into your plans as much as possible. When peers have different strengths to one another, pair them together so that they can learn from each other - lifting the standard in the team as a whole.

  8. The extent to which you can make/create meaning for yourself and others, and where it cannot be made, find it. Very few blogs like this are written without some reference to ‘why’. ‘Why you do what you do.’ ‘Find your why and work towards it.’ These are great pieces of advice, however they can be somewhat daunting for many people. Where this is the case, take the time to understand your people and explore what they particularly enjoy about their role or the organisation. Where these are difficult questions to answer, start outside of work - by discussing the other things that they enjoy doing. By spotting the things that make them light up, you can try to recreate these in a work environment - creating meaning where there previously was none.

  9. Whether we enhance wellbeing by recognising the whole person and encouraging employees to bring their whole selves to work. We spend too much time at work to pretend or act. It’s critical that we can be ourselves and demonstrate what we’re good at, as well as putting our hands up when we need help. This requires psychological safety, an environment and culture where diversity is recognised and celebrated; where opportunities are inclusive by being honest and transparent. This doesn’t mean that everyone gets access to everything. It means that everyone understands what opportunities are available and why, and how they can get involved - assuming that they reach the minimum standard expected (for example). Where people do not reach this standard, they need to understand what they need to do in order to improve and develop - and be offered a way of progressing that suits their unique needs and preferences.

  10. How we enliven energy from every angle - physical, emotional, mental and spiritual; people want more than a pay cheque at the end of the month. In reality, people are complex - with no two employees being the same. Leadership is a muscle that we train over time. A combination of thousands of actions that add up to create engagement. How purposeful you are being in your behaviour will likely influence the extent to which you yourself are feeling engaged, and perhaps just as importantly, how engaged those are around you.

Remember, every contact leaves a trace. You want yours to be one of engagement.


This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.


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