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What if the Key to Employee Engagement is not that Esoteric at all?

When it comes to employee engagement, we tend to overcomplicate things a bit. And maybe for a good reason, otherwise half the HR departments and all management consultants and bloggers like me would be out on the street.

But suppose we strip away all the fancy theories and models we have built around it. We then can see that, in essence, the relationship between an employee and employer is just like any other relationship. And as such, it is built on three pillars – respect, reciprocity and trust.

Look at the latest engagement survey you had to complete. I bet you could group all the questions you had to answer under one of those three themes.

“Mutual respect is the foundation of genuine harmony”

Dalai Lama

I will start with respect because I think that is where we miss the mark most often. While we chase deadlines and targets, we often forget to see our employees as whole individuals.

We entangle them in rules and policies until they have to get approval even to sneeze. And forget they are adults who are usually capable of getting dressed in the morning (and some can even use Excel), so we could possibly trust them not to overuse the toilet paper.

We discriminate against them or fail to celebrate the diversity they bring. Or exclude them from conversations and make decisions for them and not with them. Forgetting that we hired them for their expertise and unique perspective.

Organizational politics and the strive for power sometimes make us justify our trampling on human dignity to achieve our goals. But humiliation and disrespect are detrimental for the employee engagement both of the injured party and everyone else who witnesses it.

We spend 90,000 hours of our lives at work. And even if I think the “bring your whole self to work” notion is a bit utopic (we all wear social masks, it’s inevitable), I believe that we all deserve to be treated as full-blooded human beings and not just number-crunchers or extensions to the assembly line.

Employee engagement is a matter of reciprocity

Like any other relationship, the one between employee and employer requires reciprocity. Moreover, for it to be successful, both parties should be getting more than they are giving.

And here comes the tricky part of all employee engagement initiatives: we cannot meet every employee’s needs with the same blanket approach. For someone, getting ample recognition may be a worthwhile exchange for their time and efforts. Others may need power, a sense of larger purpose, or simply fair and equitable compensation (you would be surprised how few companies actually get that one right).

The role of the people manager is crucial in determining what their employees value. That is why the most impactful engagement initiative a company can do is train its managers on building relationships and communicating with their people.

The skills they would develop through such training programs would help them dive deeply into their employees’ needs and motivators. Thus they can build tailor-made approaches to rewarding (in the broadest sense of the word) each of their employees to get them that sense of reciprocity and fairness.

Maintaining reciprocity is not easy, but it is definitely achievable. And the good news is that we don’t have to get it right a 100% of the time.

As in any good relationship, the exchange fluctuates, and at times one side gives more than the other. That is why you can see employees sticking with a company during difficult periods. Or companies investing in reskilling employees whose roles are becoming obsolete.

The important thing is that there is a long-term balance and that no one feels cheated in the end.

And trust

If employers treat their employees with respect and maintain reciprocity in their relationships, they will almost definitely end up with their trust. However, there are certain things that they should pay special attention to if they want this trust to last.

Transparency in communication, maintaining the integrity of their business and employer practices, and keeping promises are all paramount to earning and preserving employee trust and long-term engagement.

Who is responsible for employee engagement?

We need to note that trust, respect and reciprocity should exist both between the employee and the organization and between the employee and their manager. Those are two separate relationships that need to be cared for and nurtured independently and together.

Some companies lean towards placing employee engagement in the laps of HR as company representatives. Others hold managers solely responsible for the motivation and engagement of their teams.

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But the truth is that strongly engaged employees have great relationships both with their managers and with their organizations. It is true that the manager is probably the most important figure in the employee’s work life. However, they cannot compensate fully for any gaps in respect, reciprocity and trust in the relationship with the larger organization.

See, employee engagement is not that complex at all. I told you.

But if you want to see what the main theories and research about employee engagement say, here are some resources I found valuable:

Employee Engagement A review of current thinking

Employee Engagement Models and Theories

Employee Engagement Theory: How Can We Engage Remote Workers?

3 thoughts on “What if the Key to Employee Engagement is not that Esoteric at all?”

  1. Hi Marta, I believe it is mutual respect that facilitates the employee engagement. If you both like and respect each other you can communicate much better. There is nothing worse than working for someone whom you do not respect.
    It’s really about the human relationship that matters. Whether working FOR someone or working WITH someone.

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