What Did These 32 Companies Do to Increase Employee Engagement? Accept Business is a Journey.

Training_meeting_in_a_ecodesign_stainless_steel_company_in_brazilAccording to Gallup’s 2013 “State of the Global Workplace Report,” the number of workers who are actively disengaged is greater than the number of engaged workers by a factor of 2:1.  So for every employee that is actively involved in the workplace, there are another two who are not only disconnected, but in fact are “negative and potentially hostile” to their organizations.

Peter Flade, James Harter, and Jim Asplund found, however, that there were some notable exceptions.  They write in the Harvard Business Review that in their 5-year study of 32 commendable companies (who employed 600,000 people in total) the ratio of engaged workers to actively disengaged was 9:1 – a stark contrast to companies surveyed in the Gallup report.

What helped set these companies apart from their peers?  One commonality that Flade, Harter, and Asplund discovered was that companies with exceptional engagement numbers do not use economic downturns as an excuse for less-than-inspiring workplaces, refusing to buy into the belief that it’s inevitable for engagement to decline during those periods.  While contending with declining pay and top lines, these 32 companies not only maintained their strong cultures, but actually improved them.  And they did so by “being open, making changes swiftly, communicating constantly, and providing hope.”  Flade and company argue, “the truth is that employee engagement is one of the few things managers and leaders can influence in times when so much else is out of their control. Great employers recognize this and they go about managing it in the right way.”

Companies with high engagement numbers embrace that hardships are part of the journey: rather than ignore or succumb to the obstacles and challenges they faced – such as organizational restructuring and falling profit margins – they sought to maintain if not improve their connection with employees by being transparent, by communicating consistently, and by offering hope.  By rising to the challenges rather than shying away from them, these companies were able to keep their workers engaged.

This sort of resiliency in the face of adversity is something Dov Seidman argues more businesses need, because in today’s increasingly volatile world where boom and bust cycles have become unpredictable, “organizations need to create and protect value simultaneously. It is no longer possible to batten down the hatches when ‘bad’ market conditions appear and then make hay when ‘good’ economic cycles arise.”  Instead, companies have to be prepared to continue growing, engaging, and innovating despite challenging conditions, in much the same way that high-engagement companies sought to do by maintaining their transparency, communication, and hope with employees even during economic turmoil.

And where does this resilience during a journey come from?  Leadership.  Flade and company explained that companies with high-engagement numbers also had leaders who constantly sought to improve themselves.  These leaders “don’t just talk about what they want to see in the management ranks – they model it and keep practicing to get better at it every day with their own teams.” In short, these leaders embraced the internal journey that was needed to become the better leaders they asked others to be, and through that stayed involved and engaged with their colleagues.

For more on Dov Seidman’s view on why today’s companies need to accept business is a journey, see his article “Throw Out Your Plans for 2013.  Business is a Journey.”  For more from Flader, Harter, and Asplund on other commonalities that high-engagement companies share, see their article here.

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