We all know that employee engagement is vitally important. Even if everyone shows up and works their hours, if they’re disengaged then they won’t be doing their best work – and they certainly won’t be thinking about ways to improve and innovate.
So how do you as a leader encourage higher engagement in your team or organisation?
Let’s start by looking at what we actually mean by “employee engagement”.
Meaningfulness, safety and availability
In his 1990 paper on the topic, the ‘father of employee engagement’ Dr William Kahn defined engagement as:
“The harnessing of organisation members’ selves to their work roles; in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performances.”
In other words, engaged employees apply themselves fully to their work. As a leader, you need to enable this, and bring down barriers – of motivation, skills, support, etc – to this kind of full application.
Kahn explained that employee engagement has three major ingredients:
- Does the work feel meaningful, like it actually contributes to the team or organisation’s success?
- Do interpersonal relationships in the workplace feel safe and supportive?
- And are there enough psychological and physical resources available to do your job properly?
The role of psychological safety
In her book The Fearless Organization, Amy Edmondson explains that psychologically safe employees are engaged employees. Broadly defined, psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.
This concept underpins Kahn’s model. Let’s break down how exactly psychological safety encourages employee engagement, by linking it to meaningfulness, safety and availability.
Welcoming new ideas and lateral thinking
Psychological safety is built on strong communication. This doesn’t only mean admitting mistakes and raising issues, though. It also means bringing ideas to the group, and thinking creatively about how to improve things.
This is strongly linked to Kahn’s point about meaning. If you have good ideas about new projects the team could try, but you feel like your input will just be ignored or laughed at, you’re not going to bring your whole self to your work.
A focus on trust and compassion
In psychologically safe teams, everyone feels able to be open about problems they’re facing, both work-related and in their personal life.
They might do this in a team meeting, with colleagues over a cup of coffee, or in a private chat with their line manager. The important thing is that they trust they can be open about issues affecting their health and wellbeing – and therefore their work.
This is where Kahn’s focus on interpersonal relationships is key. This openness and trust will enable leaders to respond appropriately to issues, whether that’s setting up flexible working conditions, outlining resources available at the organisation, or adjusting which projects are assigned to which team members.
It’s hard to feel engaged when you’re constantly worrying about something else. But it’s even harder when you feel like you have to hide that at work, further sapping your energy.
Clear and reasonable expectations
As Kahn explains, you need to have the resources to actually do your work in order to be engaged. This makes sense – if you’re never given the tangible (equipment, software, funding) or intangible (time, energy) things you need to complete a task, that will get in the way of engaging properly with it.
A key aspect of psychological safety is setting clear, reasonable expectations and communicating them clearly to the team. This means no one will be asked to do something they don’t have resources for, or given unreasonable deadlines, enabling them to focus properly on the work.
Opportunities for growth and learning
Psychological safety’s emphasis on communication and speaking up naturally leads to continuous learning. People feel free to ask for skills training so they can do their job better.
Again, this relates to Kahn’s point about the availability of resources. If you don’t have the knowledge to do the task you’re set, and you’re unable to ask for training, you’ll naturally feel anxious and disengaged. On the other hand, if you feel like you’ll be supported in learning new things, you’ll feel valued, challenged, and ultimately strongly engaged.
A recent Gallup survey found that highly engaged teams “result in 21% greater profitability.” Clearly, this is an important area to invest in as a leader. And the best way to do that? Take the time to build a robust culture of psychological safety, so your employees feel empowered to speak up and bring their full selves to work.