Employee Engagement Is A Leadership Commitment

It seems like so much of what I do these days seems to revolve around storytelling and brands. I thought it would be useful to look at employee engagement through the lens of the five Ws – who, what, when, where, why – and one H – how – to frame up how companies can do a better job of mastering employee engagement.

Employee engagement is center stage in HR and The World of Work right now for good reason. Engaged employees are better producers, they’re more committed to the organization, and they are in it for the relative long haul. One study in The Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (yes I do read this stuff!) looked at the performance of bank employees over a three-year period.  Engaged employees were more committed to the organization, achieved better business outcomes, and achieved superior customer satisfaction. Interestingly, level of engagement was more important in achieving good performance than good performance was in creating better engagement. It’s a mind-bender, which is why the five Ws and one H might be helpful in charting a path to employee engagement.

Let’s Look at the five W’s and one H of Employee Engagement.

Who: From a leader’s point of view, the Who should always be about the employee. Engaged employees aren’t just motivated by money, status or power – they are motivated by shared values, trust, mission and purpose. To get the Who right you need to have great hiring practices, an evolved and compelling culture, and systems in place for mid-course corrections when an employee shows signs of disengaging. More importantly, you need to be a compelling and engaged leader, one who leads with emotion. Leaders set the tone for engagement in the workplace.

What: Engagement is emotional commitment to the organization and its goals. I have worked with successful, profitable startups which had crazy turnover rates. People loved the money and were jazzed to work for the brand, but after a short honeymoon period they didn’t care enough to stick around for more than a couple of years. Money and success are not directly linked to engagement; it’s the other way around, which is why so many cool companies lose their shine. Their leaders don’t take time to forge an emotional bond with employees.

When: Engagement starts before the employee signs the offer letter. Top candidates don’t want to work for just any company; they are looking for the right company. They’re not looking for free soda and a dartboard, they’re looking for a shared sense of purpose, challenging work, committed leaders and excited customers. This is why brand is so important, and why companies have to communicate their brand not just on the website but also on the jobs page, in social media, and among the candidate’s peer group.

Where: I think pretty much everything to do with engagement needs to be social these days, so where is the social channel(s) your employees and candidates frequent. If you’re a consumer brand, Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram are critical; if you’re a tech brand, look more closely at Google, LinkedIn, Twitter and even Tumblr. And don’t forget your website, Glassdoor, and your jobs site – all can be an instant barrier to engagement.

Why: People – especially Millennials – want to know why they should engage with your organization. They want to know why they should work for you, why they should care, why you’re a better bet than the competition. Be prepared to tell them, every day.

How: Engagement isn’t magic, it’s craft. Engagement is built by creating trust, which engenders loyalty. It requires open communication, clearly-articulated goals and unambiguous expectations. It demands shared values and well-understood reward systems. Engagement is a journey, not a destination. It’s work. You have to get up every day determined to be more engaged, a better leader.

Many studies have been done to try to get to the secret behind employee engagement. It’s not a secret, though. It requires emotional commitment on the part of leaders, a great culture, and constant maintenance. The payoffs are huge: happier, more productive employees, happier customers, better profits and business results. Resolve to master employee engagement. It’s a worthy undertaking.

A version of this was first posted on Forbes.