Kevin Kruse is a New York Times best-selling author who has written three books on employee engagement, including Employee Engagement 2.0: How to Motivate Your Team for High Performance (A Real-World Guide for Busy Managers). In this interview, I ask him why engagement matters and what can be done to create an engaged workforce.
JATHAN JANOVE: What is your definition of “employee engagement?”
KEVIN KRUSE: Well it’s not the same as employee satisfaction or making employees “happy.” I mean, we hope employees are happy, but you can be really happy while you’re goofing off and not working on company objectives. Employee engagement is defined as the emotional commitment employees have to the organization and to the organization’s goals. When you feel connected to the company, when you have the commitment, you’ll give discretionary effort—you’ll go the extra mile.
JJ: What is the state of employee engagement in American companies?
KK: Unfortunately the level of engagement is so low that I consider it a crisis, not just in America but around the world. Research shows that between two-thirds and three-fourths of all workers are non-engaged at work.
JJ: Why so dismal?
KK: Well nobody seems to know exactly why. Engagement has been dropping dramatically for about 25 years now. It just seems that too many companies are focused more on their short-term profits than their long-term purpose. Too many people are focused on being task-managers instead of people-leaders.
JJ: What can an organization’s leadership do to increase employee engagement?
KK: If you want something to improve,then you need to measure it, and engagement is no different. C-level leadership needs to measure engagement with surveys, share the results down to front-line leadership, and let the ideas for improvement come from the employees themselves. Most of engagement comes from our relationship with our boss. So it’s at that level—the grassroots front lines—that the improvements have to occur. Front-line managers need to be trained in the importance of engagement and instructed about the top drivers of engagement, which are growth, recognition, and trust.
JJ: How do you answer the objection that employee engagement is that “soft skill stuff” that doesn’t translate into hard business metrics?
KK: That belief just comes from ignorance. One study from the Kenexa Research Institute showed that highly-engaged companies had shareholder returns that were a five times higher than those at disengaged companies. It’s because of what I call the “engagement-profit chain.” When employees are engaged and are giving discretionary effort, you see it result in an increase in productivity, service, quality, sales, and ultimately profit and share price.
JJ: Individually and collectively, sustained behavioral change is tough to accomplish. How does an organization accomplish that goal?
KK: You’re right, change is hard. Engagement has to be an ongoing process . . . not a one-and-done event. In all my companies I would do a survey-share-and-brainstorm cycle every six months, and you definitely need to make team engagement part of everyone’s performance plan.
JJ: How can individual employees increase their engagement when their bosses aren’t doing what you recommend?
KK: While the boss is the number one factor in engagement, we can control our own emotions and feelings to a degree. When we realize that we are influencing those around us—whether they report to us or not—we realize that we are all leaders. It’s not a choice. We influence people by what we say and do and by what we don’t say and don’t do. So being mindful of our own engagement, and encouraging others to grow, to show appreciation, and to remember the mission—these things can increase our positive feelings.
JJ: Any further thoughts or suggestions on how to increase employee engagement?
KK: We’re all so busy and frantic that it’s tough to be mindful of engagement. It’s far easier to rush off to the next meeting, to respond to a few emails, or to cross some things off the to-do list. But when we remember that engagement isn’t just good for the bottom line, it’s also good for our health and relationships outside the office too, that’s when we can keep it top of mind.