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Two leadership strategies for driving engagement

Tom Agnew, co-author of The Enemy of Engagement.

Dupont Photographers/Amacom

The following excerpt is from The Enemy of Engagement: Put an End to Workplace Frustration – and Get the Most from Your Employees, by Mark Royal and Tom Agnew.

What Drives Engagement?

As our framework indicates, fostering high levels of employee engagement involves two key concerns:

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1.Building employees' confidence in the future of the organization (through Clear & Promising Direction, Confidence in Leaders, Quality & Customer Focus) as well as employees' roles in it (i.e., Development Opportunities)

2.Ensuring that employees are adequately rewarded for their contributions to company success (through Pay & Benefits and Respect & Recognition)

Clarifying the practical implications of organizational directions is, of course, essential to effective execution. But connecting employees with the big picture is equally important from a motivational perspective. In their work, most employees are looking for an opportunity to contribute to something larger than themselves, a chance to make a difference. Appealing to this sense of purpose is the essence of transformational leadership and critical to promoting high levels of employee engagement. At Bernette Financial, for example, serving the community is part of the bank's mission. The message is embraced by—and communicated from—senior management to middle management straight to the hourly employees working in the call center.

Ensuring that employees have confidence that there are strong hands on the wheel that are capable of executing on strategic objectives is also critical for engagement. Today's employees recognize that their prospects for continued employment and career development are dependent on their companies' health, stability, and future direction. They know that playing for a winner is more important than ever. Employees cannot be expected to bind their futures to those of their employers unless they are confident that their companies are well-managed and positioned for success.

Demonstrating to employees that the organization is focused on its customers, delivers high-quality products and services, and is innovative in developing new offerings is likewise essential for building employee confidence in the direction and future market position of the organization. And for any employees in customer-facing roles (like the call center team at Bernette), nothing dissatisfies them faster than the sense that the organization doesn't "get it" or seemingly doesn't care when it comes to what customers require. After all, these employees are on the front lines in dealing with customers, and they are direct recipients of any negative customer feedback.

Because the social contract surrounding the employment relationship has been redefined, and the old loyalty-for-­security bargain has been cast aside, employees are increasingly aware that they are responsible for managing and developing their own careers and that their futures depend on continuous elevation of their skills. If they are not expanding their capabilities, they risk compromising their employability, within their current organizations or elsewhere. Accordingly, opportunities for growth and development are among the most consistent predictors of employee engagement.

With today's organizations operating increasingly lean, employees are being asked to do more with less. In high-workload environments especially, employees are sensitized to compensation issues. Acutely aware of all they are contributing, they are inclined to pressure their organizations to balance rewards and contributions. In this context, it is more important than ever that compensation systems be perceived to reward employee efforts adequately. Clarifying the equity of pay systems both internally and externally is critical to building employees' confidence that they are receiving an appropriate return on their investments in the organization.

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Numerous studies have suggested, however, that nonmonetary rewards and recognition are often more effective motivators than money. It's not that money doesn't matter. It's just that money tends to be a "deficiency need." If employees feel that they are significantly underpaid—that their pay does not reflect their contributions to the organization—their motivation is likely to suffer. But when it comes to encouraging employees to pour discretionary effort into their work and deliver superior performance, the chance to make a difference and be recognized for it is likely to provide a much stronger incentive. As Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter puts it: "Compensation is a right. Recognition is a gift." The fact that patting employees' backs may be a more effective form of positive motivation than padding their wallets is good news for companies, especially when compensation budgets are stretched to the limit. Unlike compensation, recognition is inexpensive. Indeed, often it's free.

The Enemy of Engagement by Mark Royal and Tom Agnew is published by AMACOM, division of American Management Association, International.

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