Engagement & the Economy: A Tricky Proposition

Ask employees of most organizations about their engagement levels these days, amidst the economic turmoil and uncertainty that infiltrates our seeming every move, and you are bound to hear one of two primary reactions.

On the one hand, there are those employees who feel overburdened with the “do more with less” realities of American business at the moment. If being asked to do more, they may be feeling disheartened by the workload. The emotional toll is directly proportional to the project piles that grow ever taller with each passing day, threatening to collapse and bury the employee in a dramatic avalanche of paper, staples and binder clips. It’s gonna be ugly! With every meeting attended, additional project assigned and HR benefit slashed to combat the “costs of doing business,” the engagement level of the employee plummets. The only thing keeping them from quitting is either the lack of opportunities in an economy rife with talented, educated and unemployed labor or the lack of energy to even look for something different.

Across the cubicle maze sits another worker, equally burdened with tighter and tighter deadlines, and whose desk is similarly disappearing beneath the PowerPoint printouts, TPS reports and invoices that seem to reproduce through parthenogeneis. And yet, this worker has somehow staved off the emotional spiral afflicting her colleague. She remains upbeat, perhaps even relishing in the chaotic firefighting that consumes their corporate existence. Determined to keep with the the ever-increasing workload and concerned with the prospect of layoffs that seem to be hitting every industry in town, she routinely works sixty to seventy hour weeks. Most nights she returns home by nine o’clock with little energy left for her husband and children, but satisfied to have a paycheck.

Let’s take a step back now and examine these two employees. Which is more engaged and which seems to make a mockery of the very notion of engagement? Clearly most would instantly point to the second employee, whistling her happy contented day away like the Dwarfs in Snow White. She’s happy, productive, and seemingly content with the pace of the current office, while her co-worker struggles to even make it through a single day without significant bouts of depression. Clearly the second employee is the engaged one, right? Or is she? Let’s explore this further….

In fact, survey measurement of engagement levels may result in similar results between the two employees, and they typically will both be relatively low. For the first employee, this is no surprise, but for the second, this seems counterintuitive. In fact, if one understands engagement to be the willingness to put forth discretionary effort, then current economic situations may make it difficult for either employee to even conceive of being able to exert more effort toward their work, no matter how much they love their job or employer.

So what then is the benefit to measuring employee engagement during times of recession? The value may lie more in what happens if an organization ignores engagement as an important aspect of talent management than if one attempts to rely absolutely on the specific levels of engagement. Because most engagement survey mechanisms provide results in the form of an index, one can glean tremendous amounts of useful information by diving deeper in the results. It is those details that often can spell the difference between understanding and being able to address festering morale issues that, ignored or misunderstood, may drive high performing employees to seek out other opportunities when the economy does improve.

Few would argue that the current economic crisis has slowed the talent drain from most organizations. But the slowdown has begun to reverse, as evidenced by this week’s pronouncement by Paul Bernanke that the recession may have already officially ended. With each positive tick toward financial recovery, organizations are creeping closer and closer to an impending war for talent. A war that will be won by those companies in which thorough focus on engagement has remained front and center. Now is make it or break it time.

2 thoughts on “Engagement & the Economy: A Tricky Proposition

  1. This is an intersting article, Trevor, and two thoughts occurred to me in reading it:
    a) It is certainly dangerous for organisations to turn their back on measuring engagement levels – and as the upturn starts, having engaged employees will be critical in the interim period while work is spread between fewer employees – we are probably at least a year away from organisations feeling they can recruit more freely, even if sales are improving.

    b)you are very right to highlight the importance of looking beyond the headline index to the real diagnostics in engagement survey results, as is true of looking beyond net promoter scores or similar indices from customer loyalty surveys. It is also important to try to profile the information between different employee (as with customer) types. I would argue that Engagement is as much a matter of personality type, lifestage, values, and a host of other factors that come from within the person, as it is the result of the organisational and management culture that the person works under. This is conveniently forgotten in the “rush” to embrace the employee engagement concept, simply because it makes it more complicated (which it is!).

    1. Great feedback, Miles! Your comments led me to reexamine the article slightly, and I realized several things that should be expanded and emphasized. As you mentioned, an increase in expansive hiring is still likely on the distant horizon. Executives may breathe a sigh of relief, in one sense, by having more time to address problematic engagement levels. But if survey measurements, as I suggest in the article, are more difficult to read in tighter economic times, how do we best understand the overall employee climate to know if there are issues needing resolution?

      In addition to diving deeper into the individual measures of an engagement survey, I recommend more extensive use of qualitative data gathering at multiple levels of any organization. Town hall meetings by senior executives, with and without other managers in attendance, are always good ideas. But understanding the issues strengthening and undermining employee engagement requires more. All layers of leadership need to employ emotionally sensitive information gathering techniques. Front line managers may opt for more frequent one-on-one meetings with direct reports, identifying themes from all their employees, as well as enlisting suggestions from employees as to improving engagement. Middle management open-door policies, emphasizing a strict retribution-free environment, create safe avenues for employee expression of challenges, frustrations, and fears. Alternatively, they also allow middle managers to more actively promote and communicate organization-wide strategies and goals, as well as departmental alignment conversations. Often employees simply need to understand how their hard work fits into the organization’s direction, and recognition by management of this is enough to raise engagement, particular of high performers.

      Again, thanks for the feedback and for prompting more thought about this important (and challenging) concept!

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