Employee Engagement: Now It’s Personal

Science says that half of an employee’s motivation is dictated by personality. So why are we all so hyper-focused on culture and leadership?

By Lewis Garrad

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of an engagement survey and wondered out loud, “What’s the point?” If so, you’re not alone. 

Millions of employees participate in such surveys every year, and the most common complaint that an HR leader will hear is how little is actually done with the results. With all the effort it takes to gather employee feedback in a systemic and useful way, organizations still find themselves paralyzed by the vast quantity of data at their disposal. 

Where’s the guidance about what to do with all that data? And where’s the clarity about whether or not the numbers actually matter? As we enter a new year on the talent calendar, there’s no better time than now to try to find the answers.

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The New Way to Improve Engagement

Most people care about employee engagement, but very few of us actually know what to do with it. We want it for ourselves and our organizations, but we find it difficult to achieve. The predominant logic behind most employee engagement programs is relatively simple: If highly engaged employees are more likely to contribute positively to their teams, then leaders and managers must discover what’s getting in the way of their engagement.

To improve engagement, leaders are asked to focus on changing the day-to-day experiences that people have at work and take action to enable a more positive and productive workplace. That’s why most surveys focus on questions about how employees perceive their work environment and their relationships with their boss, colleagues, and the organization as a whole.

So why do so many companies struggle to change and improve levels of engagement and impact productivity? The answer is that organizational inertia, or “drag,” is a widespread phenomenon impacting performance on multiple levels. Most companies find that people prefer to maintain the status quo rather than push for real change, especially in large groups. This isn’t a new problem, and many leaders are aware of it.

To solve this challenge and become more agile, organizations are looking to technology. For example, one new way companies are trying to address their engagement issues is by improving the tools managers use to measure employee experiences in real time.

They’re also trying to find ways to link the data they gather from these tools more closely to behaviors and outcomes. The emergent “people analytics” industry is very much based on these principles and ideas and features new tools like pulse surveys, organization network analysis, and natural language processing.

Yet, there’s still limited evidence that these new people management technologies actually lead to improvement. If managers are being given more regular and better-quality data about employee workplace experiences, then why aren’t things changing?

Part of the reason is that many companies continue to focus exclusively on the organizational and leadership factors behind engagement and motivation. They therefore overlook the personal factors that are important for every employee on a day-to-day basis.

Consider how companies approach the concepts of “meaning” and “purpose” at work. Many organizations see calls for more meaningful work as an excuse to brush up on their corporate rhetoric, revise their brand promises, and develop neat stories about their histories and value propositions. However, several studies show that meaning is experienced very differently for different people. It’s actually quite personal.

The most effective organizations establish a purpose and then help employees find their own meaning as part of it. They realize that meaning is something that comes from within the person—it isn’t bestowed upon them by the company mission statement.

But that’s not how most businesses approach this problem, and the disconnect shows just how self-centered their engagement strategies are. Most organizations are more focused on what the company needs and wants instead of what actually works for the employee.

What Science Says About Engagement

This increasing focus on individual experiences has emerged in both practitioner and academic work. In a recent meta-analysis in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, researchers set out to understand how much of someone’s engagement at work is predicted by their personality. With so many organizations focusing on addressing cultural and environmental factors in their workplace, they wondered to what extent individual differences influence the way people engage with their company.

The scientists looked at more than 100 samples covering thousands of employees and measuring various personality and dispositional traits and found that around 50 percent of someone’s engagement at work is predicted by their personality. Optimistic, proactive, and prudent people generally display higher levels of engagement than others, according to the research.

Stepping back from the academic details, it’s fairly easy to see how sensible this is; people who are generally optimistic and diligent tend to be more positive about their work and display higher levels of engagement. Go figure. But this data also tells us that someone’s attitudes about their work says just as much about them as individuals as it does about their organization. This is something that’s very rarely discussed.

The research helps us understand why engagement can be so difficult to change. If half of engagement is predicted by individual personality, then organization-level initiatives targeted at culture, HR policy, or work environment can only work well if they include some ownership at the individual employee level.

This data also helps us to see that we may be missing a huge opportunity when it comes to employee survey and engagement data. Could we also use it to help individual employees understand their personal experiences better and take more ownership for their engagement at work?

This idea isn’t supposed to downplay the important role that managers and leaders have when it comes to engaging people at work. However, it stresses the point that a one-size-fits-all strategy to employee engagement is almost destined to fail. So many organizations focus on manager action plans as the way to improve engagement, but if engagement is driven by both employee perception and personality, then in reality, there are two main intervention areas that are likely to make the most difference:

1. Initiatives targeted at the individual to help create a stronger connection between the employee and the work that he or she does. 

2. Cultural and collective changes that improve things like wellbeing, learning, collaboration, creativity, and productivity. Turns out, people really like it when they make progress on their work.

It’s important to acknowledge that this finding doesn’t mean hiring “engagable” people is a strategy for success. Cognitive and dispositional diversity in an organization is an incredibly important resource. People who are more skeptical and critical might be more difficult to engage, but they’re also far more likely to challenge the status quo and point out problems that need fixing.

These people are just as important to have in the workplace, and screening them out isn’t an effective strategy for organization performance. It’s also likely that they occupy jobs where being a stable optimist is less predictive of job performance, and so selecting based on the criteria of “engability” will likely weaken the quality of talent in those positions.

So as our understanding of what drives people performance and engagement at work improves, so should our ability to influence the outcomes we want to achieve. In particular, the research in this area highlights how important it is to innovate engagement programs to involve employees in shaping their own workplace experience, rather than waiting around for line managers to do it for them.

Again, that doesn’t mean line managers and HR leaders don’t have a role. Even the most optimistic person is likely to find it difficult to work for an abusive boss in a toxic work culture.

Here’s the logical question that follows from this research: How do organizations make engagement more personal? One way is to think about how employees approach their work to ask how much of a personal connection they feel to it. 

Amy Wrzesniewski of Yale University has been researching this very concept for years and has discovered that people vary in their mindset about their work. In her research on the mindsets that people use to think about what they “do,” Wrzesniewski has identified three main categories of approach:

1. People who see their work as a job.

2. People who see their work as a career.

3. People who see their work as a calling. 

While this framework is helpful to understand the way people connect to their work, in reality it’s likely that an optimal work experience will cover all three: It will provide you with an interesting and meaningful job, a way to see future growth and development for your career, and a purpose to believe in. 

To get the personalization of engagement right, these are the three areas that need the most attention.

How to Design Jobs to Boost Engagement

Take a second to think about how a job is designed in your company. What goes into deciding what a job will look like when someone is actually doing it?

Probably not much. Line managers create work because of a business need, and for most businesses, it’s just a list of stuff to get done. This is the first problem that companies need to deal with, and it’s frequently overlooked.

In recent research published in the Harvard Business Review, Facebook’s HR function looked at some of the reasons people at the tech giant actually quit their job. The biggest reason: People found their day-to-day duties less interesting and engaging than they preferred. In other words, the design of their job—not their manager—became disengaging. But who designs that job? The manager.

It isn’t the fault of managers that they design jobs so poorly. They’re rarely given any guidance about how to do it, especially compared to the vast amount of information they’re given about things like performance management. But job design has the potential to be vastly more consequential than many other things in the practice of people management, and so it’s likely that it’s a huge missed opportunity.

One reason for organizations to focus on this right now is the influence that technology is having on workflows. As artificial intelligence becomes cheaper, more organizations will outsource their transactional work to it.

This will create substantial opportunities to rethink how work gets done, which means we can actually use technology to help us redesign work to make it more interesting and engaging. If that’s not part of your digitization plan, you’ve still got some work to do.

The second opportunity in this area is in adopting more evidence-based management. The science of good job design is extremely well established; much research has been done on things like autonomy, mastery, feedback, and role clarity. Building these parts into the way managers design jobs is something many organizations should strive to do. 

The best way is to develop a simple process and framework for managers to assess the current job design and then improve the quality of work they create. Making that part of a managerial job description seems like a sensible move.

The last opportunity is employee job crafting. While designing work might seem like an easy task for managers, very few employees stick strictly to their specific job description.

This is important, because research shows that people who craft their own roles are more engaged and productive, and see more meaning in what they do.

The challenge, then, is twofold: First, how do we help employees understand what gets them most engaged? And second, how do we provide them with the tools to craft that experience in the workplace? This is the true meaning of employee empowerment: providing the freedom to really own what you do.

Does your current employee engagement program help you create better work and better jobs? If not, then you’re not making it personal enough.

How to Connect Careers with the Future of Your Business

The next area that organizations need to consider is careers. We’ve been fussing about it for years: Talent reviews, internal online job boards, and career development conversations with your boss are all things that are supposed to enable a more optimistic view about career progression in your organization.

By now you’ve realized they don’t work as well as they should. That’s because many people aren’t clear about the realistic career options available to them at any one time in your business, and the careers that are available now quickly become outdated as the organization changes structure and requirements. Carefully planned careers end up becoming irrelevant as the talent demands in your organization shift.

This is, to be frank, a real pain in the ass. Even educators in schools and universities struggle with the problem: What are the available jobs and future careers so that students can become productive members of society? Constant social, technological, and economic changes make this question impossible to answer.

And yet, companies have the best opportunity to help people with the challenge. It just requires a shift in focus from jobs to skills. If organizations can move from thinking that jobs are a list of stuff to get done to a bundle of skills that provide value to a customer, then we can start to understand where the valuable and transferable skills are in the business.

Making this shift also helps leaders talk to employees in a different way about their careers. Using technology, we can help people see the important skills they have, the skills that are decreasing in value, and the new skills they should learn to stay relevant.

We can also use technology to analyze individual engagement data, help advise employees what sort of experiences get them excited, and coach them in a direction that will best fit their personality. In an uncertain world, this data is extremely valuable to an individual trying to stay relevant and productive in the ever-evolving job market.

In addition to technical skills, organizations also need to think about talent for leadership. We all care about potential, but none of us do it particularly well. As the volume of people data increases, helping people build stronger self-awareness will also be critical.

The goal: Employees who are best fit for people leadership roles can focus on developing the capabilities they need, and those who are more likely to be successful as individual contributors don’t build expectations that they’ll become leaders. 

A More Holistic Employee Value Proposition

The binding idea that connects the points I’ve made about jobs and careers is the need to elevate work from a list of tasks to be completed, to a combined set of activities that have both personal meaning and commercial value. And this shift isn’t possible unless HR starts to think of the employee value proposition in a vastly different way.

I’m lucky to have access to a huge amount of research on highly effective employee value propositions. What defines them is a focus on both the meaning of the work the person is doing and the future value of that individual. This means helping people develop the capacity to earn more, as well as facilitating a stronger sense of mastery in what they do.

Both are important. You can’t just teach someone to be brilliant at something and hope their sense of mastery offsets the need to get paid more for it. This point shapes the most critical conversations you’ll have in your business because it connects employees’ current contribution with their future potential within the organization.

We also find that the most effective value propositions appreciate the whole employee experience rather than just the narrow “economic” role that work plays in most people’s lives. It’s relatively easy to make a living, but it’s hard to do work worth doing—and most organizations haven’t thought about the difference between the two.

A really compelling employee value proposition makes an effort to do both. This means thinking way past the transactional elements of the employee deal (pay and benefits) and incorporating more future-oriented elements of the relationships with employees, which includes the opportunity to innovate and create, experience a sense of sustainable wellbeing, and develop new skills. 

The Value of Thriving at Work

Today, many engagement programs are focused on answering a simple question: How can we get employees to do more for our organization?

But we’re starting to see changes that bring more balance to the deal. The new approach asks a different question: How can the organization and the employee create a shared future together and use technology to create a healthier and more productive experience on both sides?

This changes the relationship dynamic and starts to value the contribution people make at work in a much broader way. It values energy and commitment as well as longer-term personal growth and purpose. This is what researchers refer to as a thriving work experience.

It also shifts employee engagement from being something the organization does to its people to something in which it participates. To make this happen in practice, HR leaders are looking to build tools that help improve employee self-awareness, connecting what employees think about their work and how they behave in a more powerful way.

Advanced HR functions are asking how they can use the data and tools they have to help employees make better decisions about their jobs and careers, and how it can benefit their business in terms of retention and productivity. In doing so, they start to connect HR practices and people’s performance in a much more tangible way.

Employee survey programs have been failing for years, in part because they’ve been so narrowly focused on outcomes like an “engagement index.” But as technology starts to democratize the way we use employee feedback data, we have a huge opportunity to use it in a more twoway fashion, coaching individuals as well as managers.

Keeping improved personal experience at the heart of innovations in employee surveys—and, more generally, employee feedback—can help HR leaders make better decisions about the tools that will really work.

Lewis Garrad manages Sirota’s operational activities in Asia Pacific. As a Senior Consultant and advisor to Sirota’s clients,Lewis works across a range of industries where he applies his experience in the development and design of employee feedback and engagement programmes to help HR and Executives link them to business strategies and goals.