If you’re trying to raise your employees’ level of engagement, you’re not alone — especially now that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced so many to work remotely. As of June 2020, only 31% of employees consider themselves engaged in their job, according to a Gallup survey.
Poor engagement scores are nothing new. For more than three decades, scholars and business experts have been researching the conditions associated with workplace engagement. Many of their studies have incorporated surveys where employees respond to statements such as “I know what is expected of me at work” and “My supervisor encourages my development” on a five-point scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”
But, how much do we know about what employees think about engagement? And what makes a supervisor view his or her direct report as engaged or disengaged? A better understanding of both perspectives could pave the way for strategies that can improve engagement, especially given Gallup research indicating that managers account for as much as 70% of the variance in their direct reports’ engagement.
Below are the six engagement-related themes that employees and supervisors brought up most frequently in interviews I conducted as part of my doctoral research for the State University of New York at Albany:
Employees, What Makes You Feel Engaged?
1. I Know My Role
Nine of 10 employees interviewed discussed the importance of understanding their role in the organization, including knowing how what they do affects co-workers, understanding how the organization operates and being aligned with the values promoted by top leaders. One employee who understood her role complimented her supervisor for clarifying “how what we do affects the larger picture.”
2. My Opinions Count
Seven of 10 employees brought up the importance of expressing opinions that supervisors value and, in some cases, act upon. One recalled that “it was heartwarming” when the manager incorporated her feedback into his behavior.
3. My Supervisor Cares About Me
Many employees addressed caring from a personal and professional standpoint. One lauded his manager for “pushing me out of my comfort zone,” while one complained that his supervisor never discussed his career goals. Another employee who was disappointed with his manager’s lack of caring said that “it’s not through him that I’m growing.”
Supervisors, What Are the Characteristics of an Engaged Direct Report?
4. Is Proactive
Thirteen of 15 supervisors cited proactivity, including one who appreciated that his employee “put forth ideas that might not be popular and was willing to defend them without being obnoxious about it.” Another manager recalled that his non-proactive direct report didn’t take notes or ask follow-up questions after receiving an assignment. A few supervisors also pointed out that less-proactive employees were only passionate about work they enjoyed, such as launching a new initiative, while more proactive employees always demonstrated enthusiasm, regardless of the task.
5. Effectively Communicates
Several supervisors complimented their direct reports for taking initiative by, for example, arranging meetings and sending frequent update emails. One manager described a direct report who always “kept me in the loop if something’s happening that they feel needs my attention.” Another said that they felt more engaged thanks to their direct report’s frequent updates, which helped create a “two-way partnership — and that tells me that there’s engagement.”
On the other hand, one supervisor labeled his direct report’s emails as “cynical” and said they demonstrated the employee’s unhappiness with a task and that they were “just doing it because I asked them to.”
6. Collaborates With Others
The supervisors who brought up collaboration underscored the importance of employees who looked outside themselves in contributing to the organization. According to one manager, an employee who is “willing to celebrate the success of others” is engaged. Another said that “highly engaged employees are very motivated by being able to help others and make an impact on the world.”
What Are the Implications of These Findings?
Does your organization need all these conditions to exist for workers to be engaged? In other words, do employees need to understand their role, be proactive, and effectively communicate and collaborate with others, while reporting to supervisors who value opinions and show they care?
It sounds like too much to ask for. Yet, by determining which of these conditions (and maybe others) are most likely to affect engagement, organizations may be able to develop appropriate training, coaching and other performance improvement programs for employees and managers at all levels. Still, much more research is needed on this critical issue.