Dave Millner, Executive Consulting Partner, IBM Workforce Science

Dave is an Occupational Psychologist with IBM with nearly 30 years HR and consulting experience working with global clients on their performance, employee engagement and organizational development based challenges. Dave works with large global clients on their engagement programmes and has a real passion regarding the transformation of HR functions and the need for a more commercially focused response to client demands and the role that people based analytics and new ways of commercial thinking can help to change the perceptions of HR. Dave has been regularly recognized as a key global influencer in the HR social media space via @HRCurator.


What does employee engagement mean to you?

Engagement to me is about an organization making an emotional connection with its’ employees so that they feel excited and interested in their work. That way they will feel able to give that “little bit extra” when needed, I guess what we mean when we talk about extra discretionary effort.

The other point I would make is that engagement is nothing new, it’s been around for years, in fact ever since people were managed by others! It’s what great leaders and great managers have been doing with their employees; just look at the various leadership studies over the past 40 years or so. This importantly means that engagement activity with leaders and managers and their teams is nothing extra, it’s a fundamental part of managing people at work, something that I believe has not been talked enough about when discussing the whole topic of engagement.

There still remains a degree of skepticism about engagement as a business subject and that’s because organizations have not clearly understood what engagement is about and what needs to be done to make noticeable changes that impact upon the workforce’s experience at work.

How to measure employee engagement?

For me engagement is about 4 fundamental elements:

· The level of pride that the employees have in the organization that they work for

· Their level of satisfaction with the organization as a good place to come to work

· Their willingness to recommend the organization as being a good place to work

· Their level of commitment to the organization; would they move elsewhere?

All of these elements are driven by a wide range of behaviors and practices that mean different things to different employees. This is where the role of leaders and managers becomes so important. They are not the only reason why employees are engaged, but they have a significant role in terms of communication, role modeling, personal and team dialogue and importantly listening and responding to employee feedback on behalf of the organization.

What are the common causes of employee disengagement?

The list of causes is vast but the top 5 that are commonly seen with the clients that I have worked with focus on:

1) Follow up: there is no point in asking the workforce for their feedback, whether verbal or via a survey questionnaire if no tangible change or action is seen by the employees. All our data indicates that there is a very close relationship between follow up and the level of engagement of teams. Let me be clear though, follow up is not about just creating an action plan, it’s about having fortnightly/monthly conversations throughout the year with the team about the topics that they have raised or indeed those aspects that are impacting upon their experience at work.

2) Barriers to getting their jobs completed: commonly practices and processes that are not beneficial to them or are over-engineered are a common issue raised by employees. Inevitably the workforce usually has the solution to these type of problems, it just depends whether leaders and managers are prepared to listen and challenge the organization on their behalf!

3) Management of change: this is a common problem and inevitably revolves around change being “done to the workforce” rather than involving them in the process and using their insights and ideas to make the change implementation process more successful. This will always take time but from my experience has significant benefits that far outweigh the slower implementation of change.

4) Trust: this is a huge issue and can be focused upon trust in the organization to do the “right thing”, trust in senior leaders to drive the organization forward in a way that involves and values the workforce or trust in local managers to work effectively with their teams and the individuals within them.

5) “Words, not Actions”: as they say talk is cheap and I see a lot of conversation associated with engagement especially from senior leaders, but the proof is in the behavior change and actions that are taken forward by everyone. So many people spend hours looking at the data from surveys thinking that some magic solution will emerge from additional analysis, it won’t. Simple actions focused on change that makes a difference to the workforce and the teams within them based on their feedback is the way forward in the majority of cases.

What are the drivers of employee engagement in today’s fast-moving world?

Our extensive research has shown over the years that there are a key set of elements that drive engagement across different cultures and different levels of employees. These revolve around, in no particular order:

· The future of the organization: employees want to be connected to where the organization is going, feel a part of it and feel excited and motivated about what it means for them.

· Recognition: employees what to be valued, appreciated and recognized for what they bring to the organization.

· Trust in leadership: employees want to trust the leaders of the organization and their business function

· Communication: employees what to be able to have open and honest two-way communication and dialogue

· Support and inclusion: employees want to feel part of a team, feel supported when needed and that their ideas and suggestions are important to the organization.

· Growth and improvement: employees want to have opportunities to learn/improve and progress.

What makes a really effective employee engagement programme? Any best practices to share.

The top 5 best practices that have emerged from my work with clients revolve around:

1) High employee involvement: too many organizations focus on the employees identifying the issues and leaders and managers trying to resolve them. The most effective way is to jointly work with employees on solution identification and implementation. Some organizations look to their employees to take forward local team-based challenges and changes so that the involvement and commitment to change is seen and employees feel part of the solution.

2) A clear strategy: there is a clear need to ensure that a clear engagement strategy is outlined and shared across the workforce – what is the programme designed to do, the role of the employees and the managers and what success looks like? The best strategy is incorporated into other change or business programmes – after all, engagement is a behavioral change programme. There is a clear shift to running surveys over and above the usual annual cycle (anything longer than that isn’t worth the effort as it highlights that the process isn’t important enough). Whilst these can be beneficial a key question to ask is “do we need more data or more dialogue?”. From my experience, more dialogue is the requirement!

3) Show the workforce that you listen: it is crucial at all levels that the workforce sees clear evidence that their feedback has been received, understood and most importantly actioned upon.

4) Demonstrate the performance business case for engagement: relying on engagement as being important is not good enough anymore. It’s important to show the business the business outcomes of engagement. Employee engagement and business results are statistically related because they are correlated: yet the causation usually runs from better business results to engagement, not necessarily the other way around. The key point here is that the relationship, whichever way round it is, needs to be shown to the business leaders as their continued support, role modeling and focusing on engagement as a business (not an HR) initiative is crucial. There are no executives on the planet who aren’t interested in increased productivity, profits and margins or reduced costs. The evidence is where it needs to be found and shared across the organization, again showing the value of the effort invested in such a programme.

5) Accountability: the most successful organizations in this space ensure that every employee is accountable for engagement and the workforce’s experience at work. As I’ve said earlier it is not just the sole responsibility of leaders and managers.

Engagement is about making an emotional connection with every employee in your organization – if you don’t do that someone else will!


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