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How do you define Employee Engagement?

Last year I completed the IMI’s Diploma in Strategic Human Resources Management as part of my role as Director of Executive Education at IMI. One of the modules focused on employee engagement and, more pertinently, the type of tools needed to engage a workforce in delivering a strategy and dominating an industry.

Something interesting happened during our discussion. The debate between the managers in the room stalled because each participant had a different understanding of employee engagement. For some it focused on the mission of an organisation and how that related to what employees did day-to-day (did they feel part of something bigger?). For others the word engagement was seen as interchangeable with motivation and the conversation morphed into one concerned with salaries, bonuses and promotion pathways.

Who was right?  What is the ‘definition of employee engagement’?

snow defining employee engagementAnd we got it. In the conversation about dominating marketplaces and building an organisational capability designed to steal a march on competitors, one of my class colleagues related the following story and single-handedly delivered a compelling ‘definition of employee engagement’.

He was from one of Ireland’s largest retailers. A values-based organisation that worked hard on motivating staff and making them feel part of a mission-led business. He recalled for the room the difficulties his industry had faced during the harsh winter and road conditions of two years ago. The delivery of fresh produce to retail units all around Ireland became a logistical and business nightmare – one that could severely and adversely affect revenue during the key retail period of the year. His company was under significant pressure to keep their shops well stocked and competitor organisations were just as challenged.

He then outlined what engagement really means. He told us that a huge proportion of his delivery drivers had taken to sleeping overnight in the cabs of their lorries to ensure they weren’t late for work and that deliveries could get out on time. They hadn’t been asked to do it. There was no expectation to do so and there was no extra reward for those who did so. This simple act by a handful of employees fundamentally signalled an overwhelming level of individual commitment to the success and values of the company.

This was a signal of commitment but perhaps more importantly, as a positive ‘business legend’ it spread throughout the company and provided a ‘touch point’ for all other layers of the organisation in communicating the values that would lead to successfully overcoming the challenge being faced. Ultimately it resulted in this retailer outperforming their competitors during the key Christmas period.

After his recounting to us the story, we as a group drew together the key elements that led to this exceptional example of employee engagement:

• Mission-led organisation – The company had developed a significant values-based approach to its strategy and, as a result, the drivers felt part of something important, seeing where their role could make a real difference to the lives of customers.

• Personal pride – The drivers knew that they could single-handedly impact the reputation of the organisation, but this was just a ‘cause-and-effect’ outcome of a group of people wanting to do their job to the very best of their ability.

• Autonomy – The management style of the organisation allowed drivers to take ownership of their own roles. It was agreed that had there been a hint of pressure from management that extra hours were required then the results would have been different. The drivers got to make their own decision and displayed serious integrity and commitment as a result.

Alistair Tosh is Director of Executive Education at the Irish Management Institute and is a specialist in leadership development. 

If you are interested in designing, building and implementing a high performance culture in your organisation see IMI’s Diploma in Strategic Human Resources Management which has been developed enable individuals to drive a understanding of strategic talent and performance management at the most senior levels of the organisation.

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