Individual Engagement: A better approach to employee engagement initiatives

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By Dr. Seleem R. Choudhury

Most organizations would agree that the greatest asset of any organization is its people. Yet, when it comes to employee engagement—the level of “enthusiasm and connection employees have with their organization” (Croswell, 2020)—leadership often considers employees as a whole rather than individual parts with their own goals and strengths.

Employee engagement has been tracked by Gallup in the U.S. for two decades. Though there has been some recent variation (which I will discuss later in this article), the trend has held steady that less than one-third of U.S. employees have considered themselves engaged in their jobs and workplaces (Mann & Harter, 2016).

William Kahn, master of employee engagement theory, stated in his 1990 paper entitled “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work” that engaged employees express their “authentic selves” through physical involvement, cognitive awareness, and emotional connections. Conversely, disengaged employees “uncouple” themselves from their roles, suppressing personal involvement in physical, cognitive, and emotional aspects of work.

There is a plethora of data that associates the level of employee engagement and organizational team performance.  Data shows that team members’ positive attitudes towards “team cohesion, cooperation and coordination” positively influence team outcomes (Uddin, Mahmood, & Fan, 2019), and yet we often aim for collective satisfaction or specifically being fair and consistent to all. Perhaps we as leaders and executives should be bolder in our approach.

Lessons from Player Management Strategies

In July 2020 the Liverpool Football Club won the English Premier League. The previous year, they won the UEFA Champions League final. Many pundits credit Liverpool’s manager Jürgen Klopp, a German professional football manager and former player, with Liverpool’s rise to success. 

Klopp is considered by many as one of the best managers in the world. Liverpool’s assistant manager Pepijn Lijnders told the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant: “He puts a greater focus on what happens off the field than on it. [He] creates a family. We always say 30% tactics, 70% team-building.” Imagine as a leader working for an organization that applies 30% to tactics and 70% to building a team!

Many of the most successful football managers, like Klopp, hand-pick players based on their hunger and desire to play, and how they’ll add to the team. By having players that are intrinsically motivated, the team would be more likely to yield good results and also are less susceptible to being driven by team politics (Sequeira, 2018).

What does Klopp’s approach look like practically?

  • Focus on individuals. Everybody is different and the approach should be tailored to that individual. The one size fits all strategy struggles when you focus on the individual. You can still have a collective strategy, but zoom in on your team members. Your playbook has the overarching strategy, but as a manager you must understand the tactics and talent you have (or need) to get the goal you are trying to achieve. Don’t “execute order 66” as Emperor Palpatine did in the Star Wars movies with his clones. Your team will not thrive by creating clones; rather, it’s about embracing different personality types, talents, and preferred team roles. Use the strengths of individuality.
  • Build trust and create strong connection with your team members. It is essential for a leader to represent the core values of their team or group. This is the heart of authentic leadership.
  • Define success and purpose individually towards a collective goal. Identify behaviours that are “in” and “out,” so to speak, and ensure accountability exists even among your star/high performers.
  • Embrace setbacks. Acknowledge that impediments happen, and when they do treat them as a learning opportunity where the team and individual need to modify and move on. Never dispense blame, as you can create a highly toxic culture when apportioning blame becomes the norm.
  • Encourage conflict and debate. Polite teams are not high performing ones. Discussion implies trust and openness.

A better approach to employee engagement

Most organizations already have some sort of policy or initiative in place to encourage a culture of engagement among their employees.  But creating the kind of workplace culture where every individual is engaged requires more than an annual survey or simply integrating employee engagement language into an organizational strategy (Mann & Harter, 2016). 

Rather, I propose that organizations take a cue from Jürgen Klopp’s player management approach and employ an individual employee engagement strategy.  In this model, management provides effective engagement intervention for each individual employee by targeting the factors that are important to each employee.  As leaders, we must have a better understanding of “both who [our] people are and what they think about their work” (Chamorro-Premuzic, Garrad, & Elzinga, 2018).

Interestingly, recent research during the COVID-19 crisis is bearing out the player management approach of investing in relationships with individuals and building trust. Data shows that companies are treating their employees better than ever (Emmett, Schrah, Schrimper, & Wood, 2020).  Gallup discovered that in early May 2020, the percentage of engaged workers in the U.S., “those who are highly involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace,” reached 38%—the highest since Gallup began tracking the metric in 2000 (Harter, 2020).

Why has a time of global human crisis led to higher levels of employee engagement? Organizational feedback indicates that it is because companies are demonstrating a high level of concern and care for their employees (Pulse of HR, 2020). Organizations didn’t flinch when there was conversation about staying home for the health and safety of employees. Companies have found creative ways to help their employees look after their families, whether financially or with flexible time management solutions. Furthermore, working from home has allowed employees more time outside the traditional office environment, which allows them to optimize their time outside of work, so they can feel more engaged when they are working.

Managers and leaders have a unique opportunity to keep this positive momentum going by keeping employee engagement top of mind. Each interaction with employees can have an impact on engagement and organizational performance (Mann & Harter, 2016). 

Organizations must clearly define success and purpose. This is easy for a football team—success looks like improving on last year’s record or winning the Premier League. Defining success and purpose is more challenging than many hospitals and healthcare organizations seem to believe.  They set the audacious goals immediately—to make the “Best of” list, or only receive 5-start ratings, to name a few examples. Hospital leadership shares this vision with employees and expects them to be on board with these goals.  But when you bring people onto a hospital team, they all want different things from their job and have different goals. Management must take the time to understand what the individual’s goal is to have any hope of engaging them in organizational goals.

Additionally, hospitals need to learn to embrace setbacks. Even the best teams do not win every game. In healthcare, toxic patterns often emerge when goals are not met.  Leadership asks “What went wrong, and whose fault is it?” instead of “What can we learn from this?” A deep understanding of the different personalities and strengths of each individual employee and how each one can bring strength to the whole organization is the key to resetting after a setback.

The best coaches and managers know this: When an individual is strengthened, the team is strengthened (Gels, 2017). Rather than setting organizational goals and engaging employees to that end, leaders would see higher levels of engagement by learning what is important to each individual and what giftings each one brings to the team. This requires intelligence, emotion, tactical thinking, and charisma from managers and executives.  Data consistently shows that employees are more engaged when they feel valued, and I believe that an individual employee engagement approach creates a culture of authentic engagement that improves everyone’s game to lift the entire team’s performance.

About Seleem R. Choudhury, DNP

Seleem Choudhury is an international clinician and operational executive with over 15 years of experience leading academic hospitals and health systems in community settings.  He writes about clinical excellence and entrepreneurism in healthcare at seleemchoudhury.com.

Resources:

COVID-19 and the employee experience: How leaders can seize the moment, by Jonathan Emmett, Gunnar Schrah, Matt Schrimper, and Alexandra Wood (2020)

Employee Engagement Continues Historic Rise Amid Coronavirus, by Jim Harter (2020)

The Importance of a Strong Coach-Athlete Relationship, by James Gels (2017)

An indispensable aspect of football: Man management, by Sam Iyer Sequeira (2018)

Is Employee Engagement Just a Reflection of Personality?, by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Lewis Garrad, and Didier Elzinga (2018)

Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work, by William Kahn (1990)

What is employee engagement?, by Alexis Croswell (2020)

What is one thing your organization has done in response to COVID-19 that has positively impacted employee engagement?, by Pulse of HR

Why individual employee engagement matters for team performance? Mediating effects of employee commitment and organizational citizenship behaviour, by Md. Aftab Uddin, Monowar Mahmood, and Luo Fan (2019)

The Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis, by Annmarie Mann and Jim Harter (2016)

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