Employee engagement is a difficult code to crack. Many employers are unsure of exactly how to boost it and what works. However, one thing that we all can agree on is that it has been declining. It is not easy to find out what works because employee engagement is directly linked to organizational culture and values.

Working Within Your Existing Culture

It is important to remember that deeply embedded cultures cannot be replaced with simple upgrades or a major overhaul. Employee engagement can decline for many reasons. Organizational culture threads together our values, beliefs, and assumptions. If we believe that diversity is a problem or does not belong in an organization, then those thoughts will dictate how we treat our co-workers, employees, and customers. If we allow unconscious bias to pervade organizations, then it becomes something that can be very difficult to rid your business of. In addition, if employees do not feel valued then they will not fully engage or perform. Culture is not perfect. Nor it is all bad or all good. It is important to learn to work with what you have as well as how to improve it. It is also imperative to understand what traits are bad and which ones are good. By doing so, you can increase your odds of operational and financial success.

I was considering how leaders must work with their existing culture as I was speaking with a client a few weeks ago. We were discussing his upcoming change in positions. He was having a difficult time because he loved what he does and came to think of his co-workers as his second family. You’re probably wondering why he was leaving his job. He was having a difficult time because he was no longer feeling accepted. He knew his own engagement had declined because each time he made a suggestion, it was rejected. Why is this important? If employees do not feel valued they will do exactly as my client did- find a new position, even if it means letting go of something to see what the future holds. We also had a deeper conversation about unconscious bias and the difficulties minorities and women can face in the workplace. This held a lot of value for him because he said it started to make sense and come together. He believed that he had difficulty in doing his job due to the underlying attitudes by some of his co-workers. We all hold unconscious bias, however, if it interferes with our organizational culture and the ability to work then it is problematic and requires serious consideration as well as possible diversity training.

Change Behaviors…Will Mindsets Follow Suit?

The answer to this should be yes, however, it is not always that simple because it is not always possible to change behaviors so easily. For example, each of us are not always motivated by the same thing. There is different type of motivators to consider as well.

Intrinsic motivation involves in engaging in a behavior because it is personally rewarding. Essentially, this is performing an activity for its own sake rather than the desire for an external reward. Examples of this include:

  • Committing to a meaningful purpose
  • Choosing the best way of fulfilling that purpose
  • Making sure that one is performing work activities competently, and
  • Making sure that one is making progress to achieving the purpose.

Each of these requires employees to make a judgment regarding the meaningfulness of their purpose, the degree of choice they have for doing things the right way, the competence of their performance, and the actual progress being made towards fulfilling the purpose. These four judgments are the key factors made by employees in assessing the values and effectiveness of their efforts as well as the contribution they are making. When these are positive, each of these are accompanied by a positive emotional charge. These emotional charges are the intrinsic rewards that come with work satisfaction and keep employees actively self-managing and engaged within their work.

These rewards include:

  • A sense of meaningfulness. This reward involves the meaningfulness or the purpose you are trying to pursue. This is when an individual feel that each opportunity holds value to fulfill something of value, something that matters in the larger scheme of things.
  • A sense of choice. Employees feel free to choose how they accomplish their work, to use their best judgement to select activities that make the most sense and perform them in ways in an appropriate manner. Employees also feel ownership of their work, believe in the approach you are taking, and feel responsible for making it work.
  • A sense of competence. It is important to feel that work activities are being handled well, that your performance meets or exceeds personal standards and that good, high-quality work is being completed. Satisfaction and pride typically follows.
  • A sense of progress. This is when employees are really accomplishing something because they believe their work is on track and moving in the right direction. When an individual sees convincing signs that things are working out it provides confidence in the choices that have been as well as confidence for the future.

Extrinsic motivation occurs when we are motivated to perform a behavior or engage in an activity to earn a reward or avoid punishment. Examples of such behavior include:

  • Completing an extra project
  • Working extra hours
  • Covering for a co-worker
  • Offering to help

Each of these actions are done with extrinsic motivation because a reward can be given for each one in order to drive the behavior or earn a reward. Extrinsic rewards are viewed as a typical reward system within the workplace. However, overuse of these rewards can lead to a reduction in intrinsic motivation. There are benefits to extrinsic rewards, including:

  • Inducing interest and participation in something in which an individual initially had no interest.
  • Inducing interest in acquiring new skills or knowledge that previously did not exist. Once acquired, intrinsic motivation takes over in sustaining the skills or pursuit of the activity.
  • External rewards can also provide some feedback by providing individuals the information to know when their performance has achieved a standard deserving of reinforcement.

There has been much debate over which of these are more effective in the workplace to boost employee engagement. My professional opinion is that there needs to be a balance within both because individuals are driven by different factors at different times. In addition, there will be a time when one reward may be more appropriate than the other. A reward system should be threaded within the organizational culture in order for it to be effective and beneficial.

So, Why Is Employee Engagement Declining?

There are a host of reasons why employee engagement is on the decline. These reasons include:

  • Lack of employee recognition. The number of employees that feel valued has been steadily dropping. The fact that this has been happening is a sad fact for management. There rarely is a positive outcome from this type of situation either, such as disengagement, a reduction in productivity, and looking for another position, particularly one with a different culture that appreciates it employees.
  • Lack of transparency. Just like lack of employee recognition, this is another morale killer. This makes sense because who wants to work in a culture in which management is less than honest and direct with its employees? In a mistrustful environment, motivation and extra effort lag thereby hindering productivity and the financial success of the organization.
  • Disconnection from peers. Professional relationships are a critical piece of employee engagement. A happy, positive work environment makes it a great place to work and helps to create a great employee experience. It is important for management to foster cross-functional teams and relationship and ensure that any gaps are closed.

Engagement Is the Outcome of a Healthy Culture

Employee engagement is the outcome of the organizational culture. An organization with a compelling vision, a clear mission that guides an individual’s work, one in which people feel that they can make a difference, a strong understanding of value-based rewards, and where leaders practice what they preach are likely to have a highly-engaged workforce. This should be the standard in which organizations and leaders continue to work towards.

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