Let’s get engaged: Three-pronged approach brings results

Briton Wright
Briton Wright

There’s a plethora of literature out there about employee engagement: what is it, how to measure it, how to improve it and more. With all the publications and working papers on the topic, it can feel a bit intimidating. It doesn’t have to be. There’s a simple, three-pronged approach to employee engagement that will show results.

The first thing to remember is that employee engagement is not a program, an initiative or one-time thing. Having parties and buying small gifts for employees, albeit helpful and positive, doesn’t drive engagement. Those types of events are a symptom of an engaged workforce rather than the other way around. Engagement is when an employee is willing to go above and beyond what’s expected and feels like the contribution is part of something bigger.

So, how can a manager help an employee become engaged? By ensuring employees have three simple things. It’s important all three exist, because one without the others doesn’t drive engagement. The three things are autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy: Employees given freedom to make decisions within a given framework are more likely to go the extra mile. Studies demonstrate over and over the highest levels of motivation and personal satisfaction come from self-chosen goals. These self-chosen goals create intrinsic motivation — the desire to do something for its own sake. Intrinsically motivated people enjoy what they’re doing and find it more interesting.

Linda Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School and co-author of “Being the Boss: The Three Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader,” says: “A manager’s job is to provide ‘supportive autonomy’ that’s appropriate to the person’s level of capability.” Giving employees more autonomy on how and what they do promotes a feeling of ownership over their contributions, in turn increasing engagement.

Mastery: Ensuring employees achieve job mastery means giving them proper training, coaching and guided experiences that result in initial success. We’ve all been in situations in which we feel inadequate. It’s difficult to  truly engage in what we’re doing when we don’t feel fully trained or know what we’re doing. Ensuring employees receive training as well as support after training sets them up for success.

It’s not always feasible to hire someone who’s mastered all of what’s required for the position being filled. More often we hire someone with potential or who’s demonstrated success in other endeavors and will then be trained in the new job. On the other hand, succession planning efforts entail training and developing the existing work force to step into future roles. Whether filling the position externally or internally, it’s vital to help employees gain mastery. With a feeling of competence, an employee will be more engaged with what they are doing.

Purpose: One of the most overlooked aspects of engagement is helping employees find a purpose beyond their own needs. Let me pose a question: Would you treat peers or employees differently if they were all volunteers?  Volunteers contribute their time and energy for purposes in which they believe. Purpose helps employees look beyond the immediate and see a higher reason for their jobs. Educators, for example, can simply teach students or prepare the next generation for success.

Creating a shared organizational purpose is essential to creating an engaged workforce. By creating a shared purpose, an organization with employees who are given autonomy and are well trained will deploy an engaged work force. This is a recipe for success any way you look at it.