Engaged employees are more productive

Laura Stack — №6 with Stever Robbins

Imagine that you’re the coach of a professional football team—and that on a really good day, maybe 10 of your 45 players are 100% committed to the team’s success.

…about half are kind of committed (as long as you rev them up with a great pep talk first and keep pushing them, you can count on them to go out there and perform). The rest? Well, those players show up, suit up, and sit on the bench most of the time. They make the minimal amount of effort necessary to squeak by, collect their paychecks, and go home. Can you imagine such a thing?

Oh, wait. That’s a typical NFL lineup, isn’t it?

All joking aside, my point is this: with a team like that, how many games are you likely to win? I’m betting very few. Oh, you’ll win some—against teams a lot like yours. But a dedicated team like the 2008 Steelers would wipe the floor with you, because too few people on your team actually care enough win.

Now, let’s translate that analogy into the business environment. You’re a manager instead of a coach. Your team is still a team, but they’re a bunch of white-collar business professionals rather than athletes. So, given the breakdown I’ve outlined above in terms of commitment, how well do you expect your team to compete, either within the company or in the global business environment? The answer, of course, is “not very.” If you’re a manager worth your salt, this won’t be acceptable to you. But you can’t just fire all the under-performers, or sadly, you might not have much of a team left. A more effective solution is employee engagement.

You’ve probably heard this term before, and maybe you’ve dismissed it as just another corporate buzz phrase. In some cases it is, but when taken seriously, it becomes far more than that; studies have repeatedly demonstrated that employee engagement is a significant factor in the success of any company, large or small. Simply put, the higher the percentage of employee engagement, the higher the employee productivity and the greater the corporate success.

So what is employee engagement, exactly? While not everyone agrees on the precise terminology, the consensus is that an engaged employee is one who’s enthusiastic and fully involved with his or her job and organization, and who makes a sincere effort to contribute to both team and company success. The engaged employee is proud of what they do for a living and proud of where they work.

As commonly articulated, employee engagement is a relatively new concept, dating only from the early 1990s. The field splits employees into three categories: the actively engaged, the unengaged, and the actively disengaged. Depending upon the study, somewhere between 17-29% of employees are actively engaged. (Returning to our football analogy, those are the players who are 100% committed to winning.) About half—literally the “mediocre middle,” as my colleague, Mark Sanborn, calls them— are unengaged. They may like their jobs, and they may be good at them, but they don’t really care much about the company’s goals (often because they have no idea what they are). At the bottom of the heap are the remaining employees—again, 17-29%—who are actively disengaged. These are the people who go to work just so they can get their paychecks. They’re not committed at all, and they couldn’t give two hoots about the company’s mission and vision, even if they knew what they were. They’re just marking time until they can retire.

Fortunately, these numbers aren’t set in stone. It’s possible for you as a leader to change them, and it’s crucial that you try. Indeed, it’s the leader who really makes the difference here; time and again, researchers have found that the relationship between employee and manager is an excellent gauge of the employee’s engagement level. As the saying goes, workers don’t leave companies, they leave managers. If that sounds like it’s all on your shoulders, well…to a large extent, it is. You’re the leader of your team, and to most employees, you’re the direct representative of the company — and possibly the only such representative they encounter regularly. Along with everything else required of you, it’s also your responsibility to ensure that your employees are engaged to the highest possible extent.

Why should you bother? Because by all accounts, engaged employees are super competent employees, the type of people you build an organization around, and the ones you count on to help take your organization to the next level. According to a recent study by Gallup, world-class businesses (e.g., those that make money hand over fist, have great safety records, and exhibit low employee turnover, among other things) have engaged employee/disengaged employee ratios of about 9.57:1, as opposed to a disappointing 1.83:1 for average businesses. It’s clear that, as the researchers put it, “The world’s top-performing organizations understand that employee engagement is a force that drives performance outcomes.” Gallup sets an engaged/disengaged benchmark of 8:1 for successful, world-class companies, giving us all a standard to shoot for.

The Gallup researchers go on to note that actively disengaged workers cost American companies an estimated $300 billion annually in lost productivity alone. And here’s another interesting statistic, this time from Serota Consulting’s 2005 study of 28 multinational companies: companies with high employee engagement had share prices that rose an average of 16% over the course of the study, whereas the industry average was just 6%. In 2003, a study by ISR found that companies with high levels of engagement saw their operating profits rise by nearly 4% over three years, while those with low levels of engagement showed drops in net profits and operating margins on the order of 1.38% and 2.01%, respectively. (If you don’t think those percentages sound significant, multiple them by a few million dollars and think again.) And consider the fact that in the long run, engaged companies outperform their less-engaged competitors by up to 28% (one of the key findings of the Conference Board study of 2006).

Clearly, engagement is a key driver in achieving and sustaining outstanding productivity in any organization, if only because it dramatically increases employee satisfaction and retention. Engaged employees are far more productive and more valuable than the mediocre middle unengaged employees, or of course the actively disengaged. Naturally, that affects the bottom line, so doing everything you can to increase employee engagement is simply good business. That being the case, you need to understand what factors drive engagement, and how you can put them into play to engage your employees.

Now admittedly, some level of engagement is based on an individual’s personality; a bright, bubbly person is generally more easily engaged than a dour one. Otherwise, engagement is driven by a number of interrelated factors, which I boil down to the six that are most critical to maximizing employee engagement:

  1. Employee confidence that they can do their job properly and will be allowed to do so with minimal oversight.
  2. The nature and quality of the job itself.
  3. Career development and opportunities for growth.
  4. Ongoing communication and feedback from management.
  5. A clear understanding of the company’s goals, and why employee contributions matter.
  6. Trust in the company’s integrity, and pride in their place in it.

In other words, you have to do all you can to make an employee’s job more than just a job: you want it to be something that they’re proud of and enthusiastic about doing — ideally, something they actually look forward to.

In Conclusion

Maximizing employee engagement is crucial if you want to maximize your team’s performance. While the two concepts aren’t synonymous, the most productive people do tend to be highly engaged, and they’re much less likely to want to leave you. So take a look at the above factors and consider how you might implement them among your employees.

It may not be easy, and you may not succeed with everyone. However, I guarantee that if you’ll genuinely try, your collective productivity will soar.

Photo: © Flickr / Boston Public Library CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Laura stack

Laura Stack

Laura Stack is America’s premier expert in personal productivity. Since 1992, she has presented keynotes and seminars on improving output, lowering stress, and saving time in today’s workplaces. She is the bestselling author of five books, including “What to Do When There’s Too Much To Do.”

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