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Engagement Hits the Skids

January 24, 2011
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Career Development, Employee Career Development, Featured Article

Having well-trained managers is pivotal to engagement at Ernst & Young. Its frontline leaders are responsible for “three Cs” that the company says boost engagement: conversations with employees about performance, choices in how and when work gets done, and celebrating individual and team successes.

The approach is critical not only to developing highly skilled professionals, but also to retaining them, says Kevin Kelly, who is the Americas’ director of people for the professional-services firm. “We know our people are sought after and will have choices. We want to make sure Ernst & Young is where they want to be.”

Most companies, however, are failing badly in their efforts to cultivate a highly engaged workforce, according to new report. Consulting firm BlessingWhite Inc., in Skillman, New Jersey, says fewer than 1 in 3 workers worldwide is fully engaged (31 percent), with 17 percent described as “completely disengaged.”

The Employee Engagement Report 2011 notes that engagement levels have remained fairly stable between 2008 and 2010. However, more employees are looking for new opportunities outside their organizations, suggesting that retaining top performers could be more challenging in 2011.

BlessingWhite’s report parallels an October 2010 study by The Corporate Executive Board Co., a research firm based in Washington, D.C. It found that the percentage of employees worldwide who are “highly disengaged” remained steady at about 22 percent between the second quarter of 2009 and the third quarter of 2010. But more employees may be thinking about leaving, according to the report. The percentage of employees with high levels of “intent to stay” fell from 27 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009 to 22 percent in the third quarter of 2010.

BlessingWhite’s engagement model is based on two broad components: individuals’ contribution to their organization’s success and personal satisfaction in their role. The study included interviews with 11,000 employees, line managers and human resources executives in Asia, Australia/New Zealand, China, Europe, India and North America.

The satisfaction piece is affected in part by the amount of trust employees have in leaders, according to BlessingWhite. And trust is an area where training is called for, says BlessingWhite president and CEO Christopher Rice. Among highly engaged employees, executives in North America earned the highest score for trust at 50 percent. Still, that means roughly half of the most-engaged North American workers are at least somewhat leery of corporate decision-makers, Rice says. “If you’re an executive, doing your job well obviously is important. But other things are much more so: trustworthiness, the ability to empathize with and inspire people … those are areas where executives tend to need lots of development.”

Employees are more likely to trust their immediate supervisors than senior executives, even though the latter group has a greater impact on engagement, Rice says. Seventy-two percent of North American workers say they trust their managers. That puts North America third behind the rapidly growing countries of India (82 percent) and China (78 percent).

While they engender higher levels of trust than executives, managers are torn between fulfilling organizational mandates and developing people on the front lines, Rice says. The two objectives aren’t mutually exclusive, but the recession has left organizations leaner than ever. Managers subsequently feel they have less time to devote to their coaching duties.

“Even if they’ve never heard of engagement, most managers know they are expected to give feedback on performance. Yet that’s an area in which managers got some of the lowest scores,” Rice says.

The research studied seven managerial actions that correlate to high engagement: involvement, recognition, feedback, delegation, talent utilization, coaching and community building.

Helping managers figure out what drives employees is vital to engagement, says BlessingWhite consultant Mary Ann Masarech. “Our research reflects that people come to work with very different motivators, talents and goals. There isn’t a magic pill that works to make everybody engaged.”

At Ernst & Young, engagement is interrelated with global diversity, structured employee development and attracting high performers, Kelly says. “All those elements play off each other and reinforce each other.”

Diversity drives engagement by enabling people to “bring their whole selves to work,” while ongoing training enables them to reach their full potential, Kelly says. And since Ernst & Young is hiring about 10,000 people a year in the Americas, strong engagement “gives us a real important value proposition” to attract top talent.

Many companies seeking to boost engagement focus on the wrong factors, says Maynard Brusman, a leadership consultant in San Francisco. It’s not engagement that fuels productivity, but rather the other way round.

To become strong leaders, managers need training on how to initiate career discussions and provide “in the moment” coaching, Brusman says. Their employees thus gain a sense of satisfaction tied to achievement—a more powerful motivator than monetary rewards. “People are engaged when their values and goals are congruent with those of the organization.”

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