Employee Engagement - A Job for Line Managers?

Employee Engagement - A Job for Line Managers?

Employee engagement is a very popular talking piece in the world of HR currently.  Organisations and academics alike talk about ways of getting employees to ‘buy in’ to the company, its culture and values, in order to have a greater impact on business performance.

But what does employee engagement look like?

A study by the IES (2004) indicates what an engaged employee might portray:

  • Belief in the organisation ...perhaps otherwise interpreted as trust in the organisation,  belief in what the organisation is trying to achieve and the way in which they are working to achieve this, or belief in the organisation’s product or service. 

  • Desire to work to make things better... the employee engages in the concept of continuous improvement for the benefit of the organisation, for colleagues, for customers or maybe for the community on behalf of the organisation – corporate social responsibility.
  • Understanding of business context and the ‘bigger picture’... interestingly the concept of business awareness or context is being increasingly demanded of HR professionals but the suggestion here is that this is something that would come willingly from an engaged employee.
  • Respectful of, and helpful to, colleagues... often known as organisational citizenship, though we could more commonly see this as teamwork.

  • Willingness to ‘go the extra mile’... to give some extra effort for the benefit of the organisation, colleagues or the community.

  • Keeping up to date with developments in the field... perhaps through continuing professional development, product knowledge or knowledge of competitors.

The behaviours described above build a picture of employees who undertake their roles with a state of mindfulness about the organisation as well as about colleagues and self.  There is also a good degree of overlap with what we read about the psychological contract (Argyris, 1960).

It’s a two-way thing...

There is a sense that employee engagement is something the employee chooses to give to the organisation to a greater or lesser degree – a level of commitment, buy-in to values and citizenship towards colleagues; but like the psychological contract, effort is required on behalf of 2 parties, the organisation and the employee.  The organisation must set the scene for these behaviours and partake in activities that will engage, whilst the employee has to make a decision about the extent to which they are engaged. (IES, 2004)

How can employee engagement be achieved?

According to research by the CIPD (2011) managers are key to driving employee engagement.  When asked what management behaviours led to employees feeling positive about their role and behaving in a manner that shows they are committed to the organisation, its values and behaviours, employees most often said: reviewing and guiding; giving feedback and recognition; providing autonomy and empowerment; showing interest in them as an individual.

Equally, the UK Training Foundation’s White Paper (2010) on employee engagement finds that the key driver in an employee’s engagement is their relationship with their line manager, reflected in the ‘atmosphere’ of the workplace, for example, whether the manager places trust in others.

However, any attempts to achieve employee engagement should begin with taking some kind of measure of current levels of engagement, normally through conducting an attitude survey to identify how employees feel about aspects of the organisation.

And importantly, how can we maintain employee engagement?

It is one thing for the organisation to feel it has ‘achieved’ employee engagement but how can this be maintained and kept in focus.  Suggested strategies include:

  • Give managers guidance and coaching to support their competence in those actions and behaviours that drive employee engagement
  • Avoid using a ‘one size fits all’ approach to employee engagement; the drivers of engagement will be different for those in a management or professional role, for example, when compared with those in support roles
  • Ensure that performance appraisal is effectively implemented across the organisation and that all employees have a personal development plan
  • Use strategies such as talent planning to identify and harness potential
  • Ensure that employees are heard and that their contributions are valued
  • Put strategies in place to care for the health and wellbeing of employees
  • Monitor levels of employee engagement at regular intervals

But the IES study (2004) suggests that these efforts and initiatives will be wasted unless they are maintained and supported by an organisational infrastructure of:

  • Good line management
  • Effective two-way communication
  • Internal co-operation
  • A focus on development
  • A commitment to employee wellbeing
  • Well defined jobs
  • Clear and accessible HR policies and procedures to which all managers are committed and which are linked to wider business objectives.

There will of course always be other factors that affect an individual’s level of engagement, such as their personal characteristics and there will always be those who do not want to be engaged.  But organisations who behave appropriately towards employees, showing mutual respect and care for the well-being of employees; , those who ensure that communication is clear and two-way and those who organise and define work effectively, will find they are on the right path to creating the conditions where employee engagement can flourish.

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