Employee group actively in discussion at office meeting.
Engagement is not the same as employee satisfaction. Learning how to cultivate authentic engagement among your employees is good for everyone involved, as well as your business. — Getty Images/ fizkes

You might be surprised to learn that employee engagement across the United States was slightly higher in early 2021 than it was a year prior. Or that it’s inched up incrementally over the past two decades.

Most of the increase, measured in the latest assessment by the consulting firm Gallup, was among businesses with fewer than 5,000 employees, and the measurement was up for even the smallest companies, with fewer than 25 employees. The figure bounced up and down during the many societal disruptions of 2020, but here’s why it ultimately rose:

“Work can provide a stabilizing force in people’s lives amid other disruptions,” said Jim Harter, a workplace psychologist and chief scientist at Gallup. “The relationship between employee engagement and performance is even stronger during tough times, such as during past recessions.”

Employee engagement still remains pretty dismal

Meanwhile, the engagement metric leaves room for improvement in most businesses.

Only 39% of U.S. employees are truly engaged, Gallup found, while 14% are actively disengaged, having miserable work experiences and spreading their unhappiness to colleagues.

Disengaged employees tend to blame their bosses, often for legitimate reasons that small business owners would be wise to pay attention to. In a separate survey by the research and analytics firm Brandon Hall Group, business leaders earn low marks for listening to employees, communicating clear expectations, building trust, coaching and evaluating performance. That hurts everything from innovation and productivity to retention of both talent and customers, the research concluded.

“Employee engagement is the most important driver of business success and the most difficult for employers to understand and improve,” said Mike Cooke, Brandon Hall Group’s CEO.

The relationship between employee engagement and performance is even stronger during tough times, such as during past recessions.

Jim Harter, workplace psychologist and chief scientist at Gallup

Happiness is not engagement

Engagement is not the same as employee satisfaction — a happy employee is not necessarily productively engaged. Engagement can be thought of as the level of commitment and enthusiasm employees feel about their own work and the broader success of the company, according to an amalgam of various expert definitions.

Sure, some employees are simply more inclined to be motivated and engaged at work. One review of research on the topic concluded that about 48% of engagement variations owe to individual personality traits: People who are positive, proactive, conscientious and outgoing tend to be the most engaged.

So yes, hiring people with these traits might boost your odds for creating an engaged workforce, according to a trio of business experts writing in the Harvard Business Review. But such selective hiring is not a silver bullet, they noted, for several reasons:

  • More than half (52%) of engagement still depends on how a business is led and run.
  • Naturally engaged hires will tend to be resilient, and thus less likely to point out flaws that a frustrated employee might readily identify.
  • Creative and innovative people, which every company needs, may be a little more cynical and skeptical than the average employee.
  • Successful businesses need people who complement each other, not a herd of group thinkers.

[Read more: Proven Ways to Boost Employee Morale]

How to boost engagement

“There is no reason for organizations to accept that a certain percentage of employees will always be disaffected or disengaged,” Harter told CO—. “We have seen organizations advance from the bottom of our employee engagement database to the top.”

Companies that get Gallup’s Exceptional Workplace Award have 18.3 engaged employees for every actively disengaged employee, which is seven times the U.S. average. Here are the common practices that propel these companies to the top of the list:

  • A high-engagement culture is initiated and emphasized by company leaders.
  • Managers are educated on how to practice excellent company-wide communication.
  • Managers are held accountable for the engagement of their teams.

Harter suggests that a company embarks on a journey (not a one-time session) to train managers to be more like coaches than bosses. Company leaders and managers should:

  • Manage performance.
  • Focus on employee strengths.
  • Make expectations for each employee clear and consistent with the company’s objectives.
  • Have ongoing conversations around the goals and performance against them.

For employees, all this accountability should feel developmental, not dictatorial, Harter said.

“This is particularly important during times of uncertainty and where how work is done continues to change and evolve,” Harter said. “And it is important as a foundation for improving the wellbeing of employees to increase mental health and reduce the chances of burnout.”

[Read more: 6 Tools to Track Employee Engagement]

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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