There are a lot of articles available dealing with employee engagement. In a nutshell their statement are that you only have to use the right performance, talent management or BizX tools provided by SAP, Successfactors or any other vendor, train your managers to be better coaches to their subordinates, train them in giving constant feedback, timely reward and recognition and the result will be an overall employee engagement, a higher level of motivation and a minimum rate of employee turnover. As a big plus you should create a competency catalog and use it as a framework for all HR functions like performance, succession and recruiting. At least align this talent strategy to your company’s overall strategy, goals and corporate culture and without any doubt your company will become the market leader in times of global megatrends like skill shortening, demographic change and extreme volatile and global markets. Additionally I forgot to talk about  an integrated HR reporting and predictive talent analytics.

Of course this is a very reduced view on great articles provided here in SCN and other channels. All these articles contain a lot of very useful information and of course they are all right in what they say.

But what is employee engagement in detail? How is it correlated to motivation? How can you really improve it?

From my point of view employee engagement is a workplace approach designed to ensure that employees are committed to their organization’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organizational success, and are able at the same time to enhance their own sense of well-being.

In addition employee engagement is a two way approach: organizations are responsible to engage their employees, employees in turn have the choice about the level of engagement to offer their employer. Each part is influenced by the other one.

If we talk about employee engagement we should consider to go deeper into motivation theory first to find out how engagement is related to motovation.

As we all know motivation is divided into two types of motivation:

  1. Intrinsic Motivation is a result of satisfaction of higher level needs and refer to the task itself. You are motivated from within by being successful in performing a task you are responsible for.
  2. Extrinsic Motivation is normally based on rewarding higher levels of performance. That means in contrast to intrinsic motivation it comes from outside the person. Examples for extrinsic motivation is typically money or competition. ( “carrot and stick” method)

To understand motivation in more dept here are a few aspects.

First we should remember Maslow’s  hierarchy of needs. In context of employee engagement I think lower level needs like physiological, safety and social needs should be already satisfied. So higher level needs like esteem and self actualization remain to be discussed in context of employee engagement. The question is how satisfaction of these needs can be achieved? Do they relate more to intrinsic or extrinsic motivation?

Second approach is the two-factor-theory by Herzberg. He distinguishes between motivators and hygiene factors. Hygiene factors do not give positive satisfaction. But in absence of these factors persons will be highly dissatisfied. A good example is salary payment. If it is in time everything is OK. But if it is not in time people are normally very dissatisfied. Feedback and recognition can be an hybrid. If the need for these factors is not satisfied people will be disappointed. But if done right these factors can be a motivator as well. In contrast motivators give positive satisfaction to people. Motivators are e.g. challenging work, recognition, responsibility. This can be achieved with creating a leadership culture which is based on honest and respect to all employees.

Third approach is the Job Characteristics Model by Hackman and Oldham. They told us that job design ( if done right?) can improve employee motivation.  There are five job characteristics which can describe each job:

  1. Skill Variety – the degree to which the job requires the use of different skills and talents
  2. Task Identity – the degree to which the job has contributed to a clearly identifiable larger project
  3. Task Significance – the degree to which the job has an impact on the lives or work of other people
  4. Autonomy – the degree to which the employee has independence, freedom and discretion in carrying out the job
  5. Task Feedback – the degree to which the employee is provided with clear, specific, detailed, actionable information about the effectiveness of his or her job performance

These characteristics are highly related to the level of an employee’s intrinsic motivation and perhaps to employee’s engagement. It is assumed that the higher these characteristics are developed the higher an employee’s motivation/engagement will be.

But how can these characteristics be improved? The answer is: It depends largely on the organizations operational and organizational structure and on job and process design. Skill differentiation, industrial specification and division of labor play a major role in today’s work-sharing organizations. These terms stand in opposite to the job characteristics mentioned above. Probably the most challenging tasks will be to find ways to combine the efficiency and effectiveness of a work-sharing environments with these job characteristics and the insight of modern psychological research.

Out there a lot of psychological research exists which tells us that people who are extrinsic motivated are 3.5 times slower in solving complex problems than people who are intrinsic motivated. In some cases which means performing standard tasks and processes extrinsic motivated people achieve better performance than the other ones. But today innovation is of particular importance and it is a complex process which requires personal, social and of course professional competencies. We must accept that the “carrot and stick” method does not work anymore especially for highly educated knowledge workers.

Even a reasonable leadership culture and well trained managers cannot alter anything on this fact. From my point of view the impact on employee engagement of a reasonable leadership culture is very high, but compared to job design it is of secondary importance. Think of the famous Charlie Chaplin movie “Modern Times” from 1936 dealing with conditions of work during industrial revolution.  If there were managers who gave direct feedback or meaningful recognition, would this have been changed the situation for employees? Nevertheless a well developed leadership culture and information sharing across the organization is really essential in addition to a great job and process design.

As a result employee engagement is more related to intrinsic than to extrinsic motivation. Management methods like compensation and performance and even succession management are more related to extrinsic than to intrinsic motivation. However these tools also have positive effect on intrinsic motivation if done right although they are rather hygiene factors than motivators. That means you should not get rid of them but accept them as that what they are. Avoid complexity, make them straight forward and user centric and always optimze them to improve motivation and engagement.

But It is of particular importance to care about a wide range of organizational activities to improve engagement like

  • Take care for organizational structure and a meaningful job design( maybe reducing the number of hierarchy levels and increase the responsibility of each employee, give them meaningfull tasks  see above..  )
  • Implement reasonable change management processes for all organizational changes to drive employee engagement.
  • Investigate thouroughly all business processes whether they are essential for the business from customer point of view, whether they are to complex and whether they have a positive or negative effect on employee engagement. If you find any negative effects on employee engagement and customer relation change them!
  • Employees should be aware of their direct “suppliers” and “customers” inside and outside the organization
  • Clarity of vision and mission across the organization
  • Share information accross the organization
  • Increase business skills of all employees to enable them accepting responsibility
  • Develop a leadership culture with a high level of integrity and commitment
  • Implement social and collaborative tools and particulary create usecases to establish these tools in the organization
  • Select serviceable software tools which support the organization and the employees/managers in achieving their goals. Take care for a great user experience.

Although this list is not intended to be exhaustive, it can give organizations a high level guideline when thinking to improve the effectiveness of their talent management initiatives.

My intesion is to think byond tools and leadership culture when designing your talent management strategy. My experience is that customers implement talent management and forgot to take care for employee’s working conditions. Unfortunately these initiatives are mostly not as successfull as expected.

Hope you had fun reading this blog and thank you for your time.

Found some interesting research by Josh Bersin with regards to that topic. Please follow the link:

Why Companies Fail To Engage Today’s Workforce: The Overwhelmed Employee – Forbes

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2 Comments

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  1. John Schonegevel

    Martin – this is a great article, encouraging people to move beyond thinking of employee engagement as a business challenge to be solved solely by technology or training.

    And I agree with you that engagement is a two way street – employees and employers both have a role and a responsibility.  I appreciate that you have focused on what organisations can do to create an environment which fosters engagement from the perspective of clear leadership,  appropriate systems, processes and resources and culture.

    It is also worth considering what employees bring to it – they have their own goals, aspirations, skills, desires and career objectives.  When employers provide an environment in which employees can articulate these aims and link them to their employer’s goals, then engagement powers performance – both at an individual and organisational level.

    You mention that compared to job design, a leadership culture is of secondary importance.  I suggest that both are actually essential together with a third ingredient – employee alignment.

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