The concept of employee engagement is nothing new -- it’s been floating around for decades. Most firms know that engaged employees stay longer, strive to work harder and produce more.
“Employee engagement is a concept that assesses the degree to which employees of an organisation are committed to the mission of the organisation and demonstrate mental focus and emotional energy toward helping the company reach their goals,” says Dr Paul White, a psychologist and co-author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.
The issue is not that firms are not aware of the importance of engagement or what it can do for the firm. The problem lies in that very few companies are able to enhance employee engagement significantly and sustainably to have it impact their bottom lines.
According to Gallup’s recent State of the Global Workplace report, a total of 85% of employees are not engaged or actively disengaged at work. The economic consequences of this global "norm" are approximately USD7 trillion in lost productivity, Gallup says.
Eighteen percent are actively disengaged in their work and workplace, while 67% are "not engaged" -- this latter group makes up the majority of the workforce -- they are not your worst performers, but they are indifferent to your organisation, it says.
These are scary figures. Just imagine -- the majority of your employees are not engaged, which means they will clock in and out without putting any extra effort in or put their best ideas forward. They’ll just give you the time you pay them for, nothing more.
“A disengaged employee is someone who is present physically but they are not really present mentally or emotionally during the workday,” White says.
Happy and satisfied = engaged? Nope!
Happy employees can be massively disengaged. Many will happily turn up to work, enjoy the pinball machine and free snacks in the break room, but won’t contribute much at all to the advancement of the business as an organisation.
A satisfied employee does not always make an engaged employee, either. Someone could be satisfied with the job, diligently work the contracted number of hours but care little about whether the organisation’s goals are met or not.
Added to internal issues of engagement at work, many external forces are in play these days to make any employee feel rather nervous about the world we live in.
Political and economic changes in the world have left the average employee with a great deal of fear and anxiety which, inevitably, will have a significant impact on engagement at work.
Snapshot: How are we doing?
A 2017 report by Aon Hewitt showed 62% of the Asia Pacific (APAC) can be categorised as engaged compared to 65% in the previous year. This drop in engagement was largely a function of decreases in engagement in four of the region’s largest markets: China (-3 pts), India (-2 pts), Japan (-2 pts), and Indonesia (-1 pt).
Populist sentiment, politically-divided nations, surprising election results, continued technological disruption across industries make for economic and business jitters, according to Aon Hewitt.
Only 59% of employees surveyed said they will likely remain at their current employer while 63% said they were willing to give extra effort, according to the report.
This shouldn’t really come as a surprise. The world has been reeling under tremendous political and economic pressures in recent years. Resentments towards immigrants have manifested in violence and nationalism, particularly in the US and Europe, which has raised general levels of stress and anxiety.
What does this mean for firms and employees? When the world you live in is in a state of disarray, it makes it very difficult for employees to be highly involved in their work and have strong levels of enthusiasm.
When employees are disengaged, businesses suffer. And when businesses suffer, countries suffer, resulting in economic, political and social instability.
Appreciation: A low-cost, high-return solution
So how we do go about fixing this dearth of employee engagement? Most companies are aware of the need and benefits of engagement. But how does an employee become engaged?
Financial incentives such as salary rises and bonuses, unsurprisingly, always rank as one of the top drivers of employee engagement.
In Aon Hewitt’s study, they found pay as the number one opportunity in APAC to improve engagement. That could be a sign of intense competition for talent in the region as employees job-hop their way to higher pay, the report said.
While financial rewards are the preferred method of employee recognition in the region, it is simply unrealistic to expect firms to hand out huge bonuses and pay rises to everyone.
So what can they do without breaking the bank? It’s really pretty simple -- express appreciation for a job well done.
Despite the seemingly simple nature of the concept, it turns out many managers struggle to appreciate their staff members properly.
The reasons and logic behind the difficulty to appreciate is wide and varied, but perhaps the source lies within the fact that people struggle to take the first two steps in expressing gratitude -- recognition and acknowledgement.
Dr Robert Emmons, a leading American researcher on gratitude, says there are three stages of gratitude: 1) recognizing what we are grateful for, 2) acknowledging it and 3) appreciating it.
Appreciation is the final stage in the gratitude process. That means without proper recognition and acknowledgement, the whole exercise of appreciation would appear inauthentic, superficial and insincere.
A study by the OC Tanner Institute shows that 88% of employees who receive recognition feel inspired to do great work. On the flip side, 85% of people giving recognition saw an immediate improvement in performance after the employee received their reward, it said.
How does a manager effectively convey appreciation?
Dr White, author of The Vibrant Workplace: Overcoming the Obstacles to Building a Culture of Appreciation says appreciation must be expressed:
- in the language and actions important to the recipient
- individually (it should be about what they have done) and personally (not indirectly)
It seems rather intuitive, right? Easy enough? Unfortunately, despite most managers’ acknowledgement of the importance of engagement and appreciation, truly appreciating an employee is easier said than done.
What are some of the obstacles that managers face in expressing appreciation? There are plenty, according to White. A perception that people are too busy to communicate appreciation, unique challenges in different industries, an overall atmosphere of negativity, lack of support from management… the list goes on.
A manager should express appreciation “in the ways that are meaningful to each employee/person. Not everyone feels appreciated in the same way,” says White.
So how do you say you appreciate your employees when there are so many factors to consider, such as personality, age, cultural and religious differences?
Here are the top ten easiest ways to express appreciation, according to White.
- Give a verbal compliment (say “thanks for ...”; tell them, “I’m glad you are part of the team.”)
- Write an email (“I just wanted to let you know …; “It is really helpful to me when you ….”)
- Stop by and see how your colleague is doing. Spend a few minutes just chatting and checking in on them.
- Do something together with your co-worker (like eating together.)
- Do a small task for someone spontaneously (hold open the door, offer to carry something.)
- Stop by their workspace and see if they need any help getting something done.
- Buy them coffee, a drink, a snack or dessert.
- Get them a magazine related to an area of interest they have (sports, hobbies, a place they would like to visit.)
- Give them a “high five” when they have completed a task (especially one that has been challenging or they have been working on a while).
- Greet your colleague warmly, with a smile and a handshake.
So who should be doing all this appreciating?
The most memorable recognition comes most often from an employee's manager (28%), followed by a high-level leader or CEO (24%), the manager's manager (12%), a customer (10%) and peers (9%), according to Gallup research.
Employees will remember personal feedback from the CEO -- even a small amount of time a high-ranking leader takes to show appreciation can yield a positive impression on an employee, Gallup says.
Respondents of Gallup’s survey said the most memorable recognition came from (surprisingly, money did not top the list):
- public recognition via an award, certificate or commendation
- private recognition from a boss, peer
- receiving or obtaining a high level of achievement through evaluations or reviews
- promotion or increase in scope of work or responsibility to show trust
A healthy, engagement and recognition-rich work environment has praise and appreciation coming from every direction.
That means appreciation isn’t just the job of a supervisor to his/her direct reports - it should be ubiquitous, happen every day and carried out by everyone.
How do you know your appreciation is appreciated?
Managers may be scratching their heads just about now. “How do I know if I have appreciated enough and in the right way?”
It isn’t easy to tell, even if you are giving positive feedback. Facials expressions and tone of voice are notoriously hard to read — just when you thought you’d nailed it and your employee should be over the moon, you may find out through the grapevine that you totally blew it.
Why the discrepancy of perceptions? The reason is pretty simple. Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, co-authors or “Thanks for the Feedback,” say we judge ourselves by our intentions, while others judge us by the effects of our actions.
What this means is that even if you tried to be enthusiastic and appreciative, if you messed up delivering feedback effectively, your employees will likely count it against you.
Many managers may find all this very daunting, especially as millennials will comprise three-quarters of the global workforce by 2025, according to catalyst.org.
Millennials are extremely tech-savvy and a PWC survey found 41% of millennials prefer to communicate electronically at work than face to face or even over the telephone. So now you, not only do you have to deliver your message just right, you have to choose the right medium of delivery.
How do you find out where to start? As daunting as it may sound, we, thankfully, live in an age of technology. By using engagement pulse surveys or apps, companies will be able to rely on technology to help monitor career development, identify strengths/weaknesses and develop bespoke strategies for individuals.
Survey apps provide managers with a rather non-confrontational method to check in casually on employees on a regular basis. They allow you to give your millennial employees the arm’s length they need while pumping you with valuable information regarding the state of their happiness and engagement.
And for all those appreciation sceptics out there…
Chilean psychologist Marcial Losada found that among high-performing teams, the expression of positive feedback outweighs that of negative feedback by a ratio of 5.6 to 1. By contrast, low-performing teams have a ratio of .36 to 1.
Whether it’s a pat on the back, an encouraging email or a simple statement of “you did a great job,” people need recognition to feel encouraged to perform well and better.
A report by IBM, one of the largest technology companies in the world, revealed that the engagement level of employees who receive recognition is almost three times higher than the engagement level of those who do not.
If all else fails to convince the appreciation/gratitude sceptic, consider this: A 2008 study by psychologist Alex Wood in the Journal of Research in Personality showed gratitude can reduce the frequency and duration of episodes of depression.
In the words of William Arthur Ward, “Gratitude can transform common days into Thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.”
Related post on our blog: "The Forgotten Language All Effective Leaders Must Learn" by Paul White and Jasmine Liew.