What’s the definition of employee engagement? There are a lot of definitions out there, however, they share a common denominator: Engaged employees are present, focused, and energised.

Here’s an analogy our founder, Stefan Wissenbach, offered during a recent team workshop:

Imagine you’re out enjoying a day at the races with some friends. One of your buddies is a real expert and talks you into placing a bet on a sure thing. You place a big wager, and the horse goes off at long odds. If it wins, the upcoming vacation you have planned will be fully funded – and then some. Now, place yourself at the rail, ticket in hand, as the horses come thundering down the homestretch. Your longshot comes flying on the outside, taking aim at the leaders.

It’s fourth – no, now it’s third, now it’s second – now it’s gone to the front and IT’S WON!!!

At that moment, as you were watching that horse cross the line, you were fully present, 100% focused, and probably more energised than you’d been in quite a while.

While this analogy may seem extreme, it’s actually a pretty good way to think about employee engagement, and how you were present, focused, and energised:

  • You had clear communication from your buddy, about his sure-thing winning tip.
  • You knew what to do and acted accordingly – you went and placed that bet.
  • You were utterly clear on the outcome – if that horse won, you’d have a small fortune in hand.
  • You were energised by the outcome. (To say the least!)

What’s the impact of engaged employees upon the organisation? 

A lot of time is spent talking about how to engage employees, and there are a lot of stats out there that describe the increases in productivity, the improvements in profit, the reduction in turnover, and all the other good things that happen when an organisation is chockablock with employees who are present, focused, and energised – or in a word, engaged.

To continue with the racing analogy, Stefan compared engaged employees to champion racehorses, the bit between their teeth, eager for the bell to sound, and the race to start. The opposite, the disengaged employee, is more like a stubborn ass, with its rider trying fruitlessly to encourage the animal to move.

For business leaders, the difference between running an engaged organisation and one that isn’t can be profound.

“When you have the right ‘who’s’ the organisation runs itself,” Stefan notes. “There’s less reactivity. You’re not having to react to negative issues, because the team is ahead of them. You’ll see fewer problems, because an engaged team will be solving those as they arise. You hear about problems after they’re solved. The day-to-day is handled. People know what they do, and they do it. There’s less weight placed on the shoulders of the leader.” 

The first phase of engagement, which we have nicknamed “the rectification phase” is when you fix what needs to be fixed, clearing away the persistent issues that were holding your team back one way or another. These are, in our experience, usually fairly simple: the most common issues an initial survey raises are:

  • More communication from leadership
  • A better understanding of the company’s strategy (and how their role contributes)
  • Improved clarity around roles, responsibilities, and goals
  • More recognition for individual contributions.

As you can see, none of these carry a high price tag to rectify. In fact, the out-of-pocket cost for better leadership communication and alignment is next to nothing.

As an organisation takes the initial steps toward improving employee engagement, they’ll start to see the benefits of the efforts they’ve made to improve communication from leaders, connect the team to the strategy and purpose behind it, and build an understanding of how each individual’s contribution matters. Clarity improves productivity and decreases bottlenecks and frustrations. Relationships improve. People take fewer sick days. They think twice about leaving because the culture has become something they value.

As engagement grows, leaders can focus more on progress and less on problems. Innovation becomes a natural byproduct. Eventually, the high engagement levels become a competitive advantage.

Employee feedback is the key to measurable improvement 

The obstacle that stands between many leaders and the benefits they could enjoy from an engaged team is the simple truth about what they – and the rest of the organisation – could be doing better. It’s not uncommon for us to hear about leaders who have difficulty with employee feedback, for myriad reasons. However, even those whose tendency is to dismiss what employees have to say out of hand pause when we remind them that feedback represents one of two opportunities:

  1. To correct a misunderstanding
  2. To become a better organisation.

When we’re introducing the concept of employee engagement, we often ask leaders the following question: “What are the three areas in your business that would be measurably improved with greater levels of employee engagement?”

If you think about employee engagement in that context – measurable improvement to the business – along with the two opportunities it present, e.g. correcting a misunderstanding or becoming a better organisation, suddenly gathering employee feedback starts to sound pretty interesting.