If you’re a manager, then you’ve heard of the importance of employee engagement.  It improves work culture, reduces turnover, increases productivity, and affects profits.  Plus it makes the workplace a much better place to be. 

Engagement a buzzword that has been around for a long time…yet organizational leaders still complain about its glaring absence in their workforces. 

According to a 2022 Gallup poll, less than 1/3 of full- and part-time employees are actively engaged – a decrease of 2 percentage points since 2021.  Actively disengaged employees have risen 1 percentage point since 2021 and now comprise 17% of the workforce. 

Based on these statistics, approximately half of your workforce might be neutral:  neither engaged nor disengaged.  But the trend toward disengagement has continued to grow. 

How Do You Define “Engagement?”

While the specific definitions of “engagement” vary, they generally focus on the employee’s emotional response to the job, the work environment, and its organizational leaders: 

  • According to Kevin Kruse (a Forbes contributor and New York Times best selling author), engagement reflects “the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals.” 
  • BusinessDictionary.com defines engagement as an “emotional connection an employee feels toward his or her employment organization, which tends to influence his or her behaviors and level of effort in work-related activities.” 
  • Investopedia.com asserts that it is “a business management concept that describes the level of enthusiasm and dedication a worker feels toward his/her job…[they] care about their work and about the performance of the company and feel that their efforts make a difference.” 
  • The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) broadens these definitions to cover “the lifecycle employees experience physically, emotionally, psychologically and behaviorally with their organization…[they] feel safe and supported in these different states and as a result behave in ways that are more productive for the organization.” 
  • But Workforce Performance Solutions warns that it is “the illusive force that motivates employees to higher (or lower) levels of performance.” 

I would argue that employees will never become emotionally committed (or engaged) unless they believe that the organizational leaders genuinely care about them as people.  Words of appreciation and recognition matter, but it is the cumulative effect of managerial action that reinforces feelings of being cared for. 

In my research that culminated in the Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B‑DOC), a lack of organizational caring was the second most common precipitating factor to burnout – surpassed only by poor leadership. 

  • But how do you show an employee that you care without overstepping professional boundaries? 
  • Do all employees perceive caring based on the same actions? 
  • And how do you learn to be compassionate and caring toward your workers? 

Perhaps it is this emotional foundation of employee engagement that makes it so difficult for many managers to provide a caring environment that will effectively motivate and engage workers. 

Additionally, emotional responses are very idiosyncratic to the individual, so there is no “one size fits all” approach to creating and sustaining a culture of caring that is felt by all employees. 

With emotions at the heart of employee engagement, leaders must customize their responses to address the unique needs of each individual employee. 

The Covid pandemic shone a bright light on how managers treat or care for their employees – and the results have been unsurprisingly negative.  Workers are now more courageous in demanding that they be treated with respect, equity, and caring.  If not, they will ghost their jobs and their employers. 

These recruitment and retention issues represent a sobering fact regardless of industry or profession.  But these challenges are a beacon reminding leaders to build a new paradigm for the foundation of the post-pandemic’s “new normal.” 

A cornerstone of this “new normal” is the realization that employees cannot be viewed as replaceable cogs in a wheel.  Given the connection between employee engagement and organizational performance, it is no wonder that “engagement” is generating a great deal of interest. 

Disengagement and Burnout

Burnout is the antithesis of engagement. 

Organizational leaders continuously seek new ways to inspire employees to expend the needed effort to do their jobs well by meeting (or exceeding) performance standards.  When employee performance is optimal, then the organization is much more likely to achieve its strategic goals and outcomes. 

But when employees burn out, their emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being are affected.  Due to the complex interactions of stress on the brain, the ability to solve problems, make decisions, communicate with others, and respond creatively are significantly impaired. 

As burnout progress, cynicism and exhaustion become paramount – and enthusiasm for the job disintegrates.  They no longer care.  They no longer have the energy to care.  They no longer believe that their contributions will be recognized.  Burnout is the ultimate disengagement. 

Earn Your Employees’ Engagement By Proving That You Care

“When people are financially invested, they want a return. 
When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.”
– Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why

To encourage employees to emotionally invest themselves in their jobs, it is important that they feel acknowledged and safe.  They need to know that the organization’s leaders will make decisions based on not only financial returns for shareholders, but also on the impact on its only non-duplicatable competitive advantage:  its employees. 

No organization exists without its people.  It is only through its workforce that an organization can survive…or fail.  The heart and soul of an organization are (and always have been) found in the actions of its people – not in the written words of its mission statements or strategic plan. 

To ignite the hearts and souls of your employees requires stepping into the “squishy” side of leadership:  acknowledging and proactively responding to the emotions and feelings of your workers.  It’s something that can’t be delegated.  Nor is it something that you can schedule in.  This emotional connection is the cornerstone of your relationship with your subordinates. 

Emotions taken in a group context are tied to the culture of the organization:  those unwritten rules of “how we do things here.” 

Relationships are the cornerstone of the employee engagement or disengagement.

Operationalize Organizational Caring

There have been a plethora of books, articles, blogs, podcasts, and videos focusing on positive relationship and team building.  In fact, I’m sure that you have probably engaged in many of them. 

The challenge occurs in attempting to instill a culture of caring within the organization.  In other words, how do you operationalize caring? 

As any manager knows, operations are comprised of organizational policies, processes, and practices. In creating a culture of caring that will nurture employee engagement, this also includes clearly defined leadership styles and practices. 

So what do your policies, processes, practices and leadership indicate have to say about how you really feel about your workers?  Can you unequivocally state that they consistently provide tangible proof to your employees that you genuinely do care about their well-being? 

As you embark on creating a culture of caring, consider these 10 questions: 

  1. How frequently have you downsized or furloughed workers in the past 2-3 years?  Did you take care of the employees after they leave your organization?  How did you show your surviving employees that you care?   
  2. Do you simply meet the minimum requirements of employment laws and regulations?  Do you seek to surpass the “letter of the law” by doing more than what is legally expected? 
  3. Do your managers and leaders really know their subordinates?  Managers can inspire, but motivation is internal.  Do they really understand what motivates their workers?  Do they consider their employees’ individual WIIFM’s (“what’s in it for me”) by addressing their values, goals, and beliefs when assigning projects or delegating tasks? 
  4. What are the unwritten rules of how to “succeed” in your organization?  Are only those workers who negate their personal lives the ones who are promoted or given the “plum” assignments?  What’s your knee-jerk reaction to employee requests for vacation or personal time off? 
  5. Do company leaders embody and live your corporate ethics statement?  How do you respond to reports of unrestrained rants or bullying tactics in order to get their way?  Do you lead with a carrot or a stick when making the hard decisions necessary to achieve organizational goals? 
  6. Do you understand, recognize, and encourage employees to take some downtime in order to recharge?  Do you believe that creativity and innovation can only be fully unleashed if your workers are well rested and well rewarded? 
  7. Do you talk with employees – or talk at them?  In other words, is participative management a cornerstone of your business model – or are you more likely to engage in an autocratic “just do it” management style? 
  8. Do you encourage employees’ questions – even if they are difficult or uncomfortable?  How do you answer these tough questions?  Do you make a genuine effort to fully answer questions and concerns to the employees’ satisfaction? 
  9. Are you providing stretch goals that address not only employees’ strengths (in terms of their value to the company), but also are aligned with their personal and professional goals?  Do you even know what their personal and professional goals are? 
  10. Finally, do you appreciate and recognize employees’ efforts for not only “going above and beyond” but also to achieving what you requested of them?  Or do you only recognize achievements that surpass the set standards? 

No one will give fully of themselves if they do not believe that their efforts will be appreciated, recognized, and rewarded.  As the pandemic has shown, workers will quickly leave an organization if it feels toxic or makes them feel bad about themselves.  If disengagement descends into burnout, the vast majority of employees will simply quit because feeling deflated, under-appreciated, and emotionally abused is worth more than a paycheck. 

If your organizational practices tend to leave employees feeling deflated or under-appreciated, your actions may be proving to employees they really don’t matter to you.

Emotions are confounding and sometimes scary.  They are part of the grey area of leadership and are unique to the individuals involved.  But emotions are at the heart of being human. 

By bringing the “human” back into human resources and managerial practices, many of the challenges associated with employee disengagement can be overcome.  Being human means caring.  And no human being – regardless of their position on the organizational chart – wants to feel bad about themselves, their efforts, and their contributions. 

Simply stated, all employees want to feel on an emotional level that their employers genuinely care about them.  That their leaders respect the conflicting needs of their employees’ professional and personal lives.  That their managers are grateful for their contributions to the achievement of organizational goals.  That their inclusion on the organizational team is wanted and appreciated. 

In other words, people want to work in an environment in which they feel cared about. 

If your employees are disengaged, maybe it’s time to look in the mirror.  After all, they won’t care about what happens in the organization if you don’t show that you care about them first. 

Dr. Geri Puleo is the creator of the Burnout During Organizational Change (B-DOC) Model, a research-based solution that defines the descent and recovery of workplace burnout.  Her current project is focused on gender differences in workplace burnout.  A frequent and popular keynote speaker, her TEDx Talk on Burnout v. PTSD:  More Similar Than You Think has been viewed over 600,000 times on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFkI69zJzLI).

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