Three Key Myths And Facts About Employee Engagement

By Peter Langford.

A desire for a passionate, committed leadership team and front-line staff is the Holy Grail for many business owners and CEOs. But where does the quest for employee engagement start? This article addresses a few misconceptions about engagement and provides a platform for improving the way this critical component of an organisation’s culture can be managed and tracked.

Myth One: Engagement Is The Responsibility Of The Human Resources Department

In actual fact, engagement can be a key competitive advantage and must be led from the top. Delegating the primary responsibility for employee engagement to human resources staff can be a major mistake, and will inevitably constrain engagement levels in your organisation. Two core but mistaken beliefs seem to be behind this delegation: The first one is that engagement is not as important as the ‘serious strategic stuff’ that executives deal with. The second is that HR are the ‘people specialists’, so employee engagement issues should be left to them and executives should be left to focus on other operational issues.

There is now widespread acceptance that higher engagement levels contribute to stronger business outcomes. Recent research estimated that a five-per-cent increase in engagement is associated with a profit increase of roughly ten per cent of payroll. Why is there such a strong relationship between engagement, revenue and costs? Engaged staff are more open to receiving and acting upon feedback and focus more upon development. Engaged staff develop more trusting working relationships, which facilitates greater communication, service quality and problem solving. They will go the extra mile when needed, occasionally working through the night or over the weekend because of their bond with the organisation and its people.

The quality of an employee’s relationship with senior management is a major determinant of their engagement. There is strong evidence that an employee’s relationship with senior leadership trumps the relationship that an employee has with a supervisor. Senior executives must not divert their attention away from developing trust with all staff, or engagement will suffer. One way to help this is to make engagement a key performance indicator for senior staff.

Myth Two: The Goal Should Be Full Engagement

The goal of a business should be to achieve a realistic level of engagement rather than full engagement from the outset. This may seem contradictory given the above, but no organisation can achieve 100-per-cent engagement , nor should it want to. There is more to life than work and it would be perverse to expect employees to commit themselves to work to the exclusion of all else. A 100-per-cent committed workforce is likely to be making sacrifices in terms of wellbeing and relationships, which will then flow negatively through to work. Such extreme engagement could only be achieved at the expense of diversity and a willingness to challenge the status quo.

Another reason for setting a realistic goal for employee engagement is that engagement will not shift dramatically overnight. Current engagement levels in your staff reflect an accumulation of their experiences with senior leaders and HR systems. The speed of change in employee engagement is dependent upon how quickly you can change these drivers of engagement. As a very rough guide, if you are measuring engagement on a scale of 0 to 100, you could aim for two- to three-per-cent improvement per year, with a ceiling of between 80 to 90 per cent engagement.

Myth Three: Staff Will Be More Engaged If They Are Paid More

Purpose, participation and progress are the major drivers of engagement. A surprisingly common tendency is to use remuneration to generate greater commitment. This ‘solution’ absolves managers of the responsibility of changing their own behaviour and having to change the HR systems that influence engagement. If there is money available, increasing pay is an easy thing to do; if money is not available, managers can lament that if they cannot increase pay, they cannot expect increased engagement. Human motivation, however, is far more complex.

In 1957, Professor Douglas McGregor of the MIT Sloan School of Management, identified two divergent belief systems within managers that he labelled Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X assumed that workers disliked work and attended primarily to meet their financial needs. Theory Y reflected a more liberal view, assuming that work delivered a broader range of human needs. Theory X may hold some truth for a small number of employees who are extremely financially focused, but in the age of knowledge workers and greater job choice, Theory Y is a more effective belief system.

Employees want a strong sense of purpose born from an understanding of why the organisation exists and how it is contributing to the world around them. Not-for-profit organisations and public sector organisations might seem to have a natural advantage in this regard. Yet private sector organisations can be just as effective in establishing a strong purpose if they can communicate to staff the positive impact of their work.

Participation refers to the needs of staff to be recognised, grow and be involved. Businesses should out of their way to privately and publicly praise managers and staff for great work and that they care about the development of skills and careers, providing challenging work projects and ongoing training and coaching. Where possible, staff should be involved in day-to-day operational decisions and in the setting of overall goals and strategy.

In summary, progress refers to the need to celebrate the overall success and improvement of work units and the organisation as a whole. Senior executives need to sell the progress of their organisation, clearly communicating to all staff the ways that the place is getting better and that the future is positive.

Dr Pete Langford is the director of Voice Project, a consultancy that has grown out of research at Macquarie University specialising in surveying engagement, leadership and service quality. He holds an honorary role at Macquarie University, and was previously a senior lecturer in organisational psychology. Peter can be contacted on 0408 810 502 or