There is a pandemic across the nation. We aren’t talking about COVID-19. This pandemic is much more subtle, and perhaps more sinister. It affects one out of every two people in the workforce across the nation and is crippling the progress of many organizations. This pandemic’s name—low employee engagement. Engagement is a measure of how connected your employees are to the company’s mission and vision. The higher your engagement, the better. It drives outcomes almost any business owner would want: showing up on time, being more productive, using more creativity, reducing intent to leave, more commitment to exceeding goals, and continuing to grow.
Engagement across the workforce is in an abysmal state. Only one-third of workers feel engaged by their jobs, with 52% saying they are “just showing up” and another 17% claiming to be actively disengaged with their current job. Does this pandemic really matter? At first glance, many companies seem to be getting along just fine despite the state of employee engagement. Looks can be deceiving.
Getting your workforce engaged has an impact on your profitability, safety, and retention. Profitability is king for many companies: Caterpillar invested in employee engagement and was able to generate annual savings of $8.8 million. Safety can be costly: engaged employees are five times less likely to have an incident, and 7 times less likely to miss time due to an incident. Talent retention is a key battle in many industries today, and companies that organize efforts to create engagement are winning: their retention numbers are up 40%.  The list goes on and on across productivity, innovation, and more, engagement is driving positive business outcomes.
But this is where the rubber meets the road. How do you drive engagement? The answer is deceptively simple: culture—the environment and practices of your organization. But what kind of culture drives the beliefs and attitudes in your team that will result in the engaged behavior leaders are looking for? Is it relaxed rules, free snacks, unlimited PTO, and happy hours every week? We decided to look a bit deeper. What are the characteristics of an environment where employees (and people in general for that matter) thrive and grow? Our theory is rooted in Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a foundational theory that dictates the primary needs of humanity as we learn and grow. In modern times, this theory has grown to include intellectual needs such as emotional and social safety alongside physiological needs like shelter and food. By applying these needs to the workplace, we can establish some of the basic dimensions of a healthy culture that will help your team thrive. Let’s dive right in.
I think back to a high-school Spanish teacher who once caught me trying to distract my friends when her back was to the class. As a consequence, I had to write “Voy a escuchar a la profesora” (I will listen to the teacher) by hand 200 times. I started strong, but about 25 times in I got pretty bored. My attention span has increased as an adult, but there are many tasks and jobs that become boring after doing them day in and day out. One survey of about 5,000 professionals determined that the top reason many people look for a new job is, you guessed it, boredom. 
If an employee’s work doesn’t force them to learn, grow, or hone their skills, they won’t feel challenged. Give your team opportunities to take on new problems or apply their skills to a new scenario. Secondarily, provide enough autonomy so employees don’t feel like they are being spoon-fed and instead have the chance to come up with their own solutions and strategies. The goal is to create challenging work that allows them to feel like they are achieving something, have responsibility, can grow, and enjoy the work itself.
If an employee says they feel undervalued, what do you think they mean? Value is often conflated with pay, when really, compensation and benefits are only one part of the value puzzle. Feeling valued is based on a need for esteem more than it is for money. In fact, money fits more squarely within the most primal human needs for food and shelter. Esteem on the other hand could be summed up as our desire to be seen, heard, and valued.
Create an environment where your people are recognized for their efforts and acknowledged for their contribution. Show empathy and recognize humanity: personal issues impact work performance sometimes, and compassion is warranted.
Every member of your team has a voice, thoughts, and opinions that should be given a chance. Make sure that you aren’t stifling anyone’s input. When you make decisions that will impact your team, ask for your teammates’ opinions.
Make sure you demonstrate to your team that you value them. This includes things like equitable pay and benefits, but should not end there. You can demonstrate that you value their skills and experience by providing autonomy and delegating real responsibility.
A Quantum Workplace study found that only 12% of employees believe that employee recognition was a top priority while 69% of employees indicated they would work harder if they were appreciated more.  The takeaway is that a little focus on demonstrating to your team that they are valued, could go a long way toward changing the way they engage with their work.
While engagement seems to get most of the love in blogs, consulting firms and articles on business success, we believe alignment may be a little more slept on. Alignment is what gives engagement purpose. It is the secret weapon that can help companies get the most out of their teams, and is actually more closely tied to improvement of KPI’s in some studies than engagement is. At a basic level, alignment is the context of how an individual’s skills and their role and actions within the organization tie to the larger mission and objectives of the company. You can break alignment down into two components:
Role alignment describes how well your team members are aligned with the position they fill in your company. Does it require them to operate within their strengths and skill sets, or do they spend most of their efforts engaged in work that doesn’t really match who they are. Often poor role alignment eats into engagement, making people feel set up to fail. When employees can’t utilize their strengths, they are more likely to want a change and leave their employer. In fact, the Society for Human Resource Management found that the top driver of job satisfaction was “the opportunity to use their skills and abilities.”  Keep lines of communication open with your team and if they seem unhappy with their current role, be open to finding a better fit for their talents and skills in another facet of your organization.
Role connection describes the degree to which your individual contributors understand their role within the context of the organization. Strong role connection means that everyone understands the mission of the organization and could explain what the vision for the future is and how their role will help the company achieve its mission and goals. This connection to the overall mission is crucial if you want to create a sense of purpose. Imagine that you are assigned a simple task every day: driving a man with a cooler across town. You do it day in and day out but never really understand why. Now consider that you were told on day 1 that you are a crucial part of a supply chain to get organ transplants across the city in time to save lives. Those two roles, though identical, are completely transformed by an understanding of why the task you are doing is important and meaningful.
How you lead your team, and the individuals it is composed of, matters. This topic can be challenging because of the inherent implication that leaders aren’t doing enough, or that what they are doing isn’t working. Most of the business owners we work with take great pride in their business and want what is best for their team. However, healthy leadership can be a tremendous challenge and even great leaders always have room to improve.
When considering leadership through the lens of employee engagement, this becomes even more apparent. 70% of the variance in an engagement research project by Gallup was determined to be explained by the quality of management and 50% of employees who decided to leave a job did so to get away from their current manager. 
Leaders have a unique opportunity and challenge to build healthy relationships with their employees and lead them in their development. At a surface level, leaders should show their employees respect, provide constructive feedback, treat everyone with fairness, and advocate on behalf of their employees. Strong leaders also inspire and motivate their subordinates, and provide them with clear strategy and direction. Go through the following questions as a quick litmus test of the leadership quality within your organization:
It’s a challenging list, but a great place to start thinking about how your leadership is impacting your team.
If I could leave you with one word here it would be ‘Connection’. Many might be familiar with the old idiom “No man is an island”. It turns out that this quip is backed by research. Sarah Pressman, a researcher at the University of California, Irvine, analyzed life expectancy, and found that poor social relationships beat out obesity, excessive drinking, and even smoking when it came to the probability of dying early.  Other studies conducted on workplace social dynamics found that employees get sick less often, recover faster, are less depressed, and perform better on the job when they have positive social connections at work.
How can companies create avenues for connection? There are countless approaches, and it will depend on your team and capabilities. Foundationally, focus on giving your team chances to discuss topics that aren’t work related like their personal lives and hobbies and develop relationships that go beyond the work and objectives within the organization.
Are your employees proud that they work for your organization? Does it matter? We would argue yes. Pride in one's work and the company itself is intricately tied to engagement. Engagement could be considered a symptom of employees who feel that they are contributing to a company they are proud of. Many U.S. employees describe their jobs as almost a means to an end: just there to get by and get paid. Engagement needs a sense of purpose and being a part of something bigger than a paycheck.
If you want to be successful at hiring top talent, you have found a second reason you should care whether your employees have organizational pride. The Society for Human Resource managers conducted a study of nearly 330,000 new hires and discovered that employee referrals had the highest hire-through rates and the highest reported quality of hires.  Your people can be your biggest advocates if you give them reason to be. If you believe your company has a mission that is worth being proud of, but don’t feel like you see that reflected among your team, you may need to work on clearly communicating that mission and making sure everyone understands how their daily grind fits into the larger purpose and goals of the organization.
Every business wants driven and engaged employees. For some, the motivation is purely numbers: more profit, more productivity, less cost. We would hope that in time, the primary motivator becomes their people. They want their employees to thrive and excel. Whatever the motivation, companies often struggle to identify concrete steps they can take to change their culture and drive engagement. We hope that these foundational dimensions can serve as a foundation for companies to identify cultural weaknesses and build an environment that will drive engagement and long-term business success.
If you have questions about any of the dimensions, we would love to learn more about you and your organization. Just head to www.ledgestone.com/contact and lets chat!