Strengthen employee engagement, not just performance

Ever wonder what makes your best employees into “rock stars” when others are just plugging dutifully along? One difference is their level of engagement.

Actively engaged employees are builders. They perform at consistently high levels. They want to use their talents and strengths at work every day. They work with passion and they drive innovation that moves their organizations forward. Engaged employees plan to stay for what they can give to your organization.

Contrast this with actively disengaged employees, who are the “cave-dwellers.” They resist change, are consistently against everything, and sow seeds of negativity at every opportunity. They can undermine what the engaged employees accomplish. They stay for what they can get from your organization.

Employee engagement can be defined many different ways, but generally attempts to take into account demonstrated satisfaction and commitment in addition to whatever specific variables are defined in an individual’s job description.

Thus engagement is more than just productivity, but a broader concept that attempts to measure a person’s perceptions and attitudes about their workplace and the work environment. “Engagement” matters over merely measuring “performance” because there is a strong correlation between the two—employees who are engaged produce a higher quality of work and are far less likely to be absent, claim workers compensation, or terminate employment for any reason, including involuntarily.

Corporations often compute their employee turnover rates and even use a statistical formula to identify the dollar cost of a position open, the recruiting, and training, and productivity ramp-up (i.e., a new employee is rarely 100% efficient their first month on the job). This formal analysis is not something most nonprofits have the inclination or resources to consider, but of course the benefits of engagement and the cost of a turnover are just as real for us, even if we don’t examine them.

Still, how could you assess employment engagement? You might consider a third-party interview or survey process based on the following considerations.

1. An employee’s relationship with a direct supervisor makes or breaks a level of engagement, more so than the employee’s feelings about the organization overall. This critical relationship is usually defined by three factors: whether the supervisor is a good listener, how the supervisor expresses appropriate praise and appreciation for a job well done, and how an employee is informed and involved in decisions that affect the team.

2. Less easy to define but also very important is whether an employee trusts your management and/or board. Ask. If there is something in your culture that inhibits trust, find out what it is. For example, you may insist there is no favoritism exhibited among your staff, but then, it’s not your perception that matters in this case.

3. Employee engagement is a deep and broad connection that an individual has with an organization that results in a willingness to go above and beyond what’s expected of them. This three-part connection starts with the rational, thinking part of the equation—how well an employee understands his/her job and its connection to the mission. This is the “mind.” You clearly have a role in ensuring this understanding.

4. There is an emotional component to the engagement connection, how much passion and energy the person brings to her/his work. This is the “heart,” the feeling part of the equation. You have less control per se over this intrinsic aspect of an employee’s personality, although it can be strengthened or weakened by your actions.

5.  Finally, the third connection is “tools,” i.e., how well a person is equipped to perform their roles. We all know that strong tools are required for a strong motivation to perform, so this is the doing part of the equation. Tools and training are definitely in your control.

6.  We’re all familiar with exit interviews. But what if you conducted some “stay interviews,” i.e., working to understand the perceptions of the employees who are most critical to your operations? This is entirely separate from an annual performance conversation. Are they actively looking, or even thinking about looking, for work elsewhere? You know that your most talented people are the most desirable to other employers. Of your staff that has left (excluding retirement) in the last 18 months, how many were top performers?

7. Would your most valued employees agree that joining your team was the right decision? Based on their experience thus far, would they accept the same position today? Considering again the crucial role of an immediate supervisor on a person’s level of engagement, the flip side is that a poor relationship at that level is often cited as a reason that an employee leaves (or wouldn’t consider returning).

8. Another intriguing aspect of employee engagement is your orientation of new hires. Just as incoming board members need to be engaged soon in order not to lose interest, research shows that many employees make a long-term decision to stay with their employer within the first few weeks or months of employment. Depending on the size of your organization, you may want to analyze the voluntary turnover of staff that has been with you less than a year. Does this turnover reflect a weakness that you can correct?

9. The link between employee engagement and internal communications is obvious. Are your goals and priorities clearly communicated? When difficult decisions need to be made that affect all staff, how and when is news being delivered?

10. The immediate supervisor role can be explored with such questions as whether the supervisor is accessible and responsive when needed; whether he/she promotes a culture of appreciation; how effectively employee differences in gender, race or experience are leveraged to create the best possible result; and whether feedback on performance and projects is both useful and timely.

Too often we are so focused on the day-to-day tactics of raising money and delivering program, we dismiss some of the less obvious or tangible elements of what makes our organizations successful. Employee engagement is one such element.