Employee engagement: You get what you deserve

employee engagment
Damian McAlonan

Employee engagement is decreasing in an age when it should be more important than ever. The pressure on businesses to succeed is fierce, and companies with engaged employees have a definite edge; their employees are more committed, work harder and get real results.

Do you want to create a purpose-driven organization where employees can really make a difference? Damian McAlonan, a thought leader in employee engagement, explains what employee engagement really is and how you can implement lasting engagement.

Damian is Managing Partner with The Boost Partnership, a team of professional advisers who help businesses boost their performance through professional learning and developing a fully engaged workforce.

In the part-two segment of our interview, Damian explores the role of corporate communications in employee engagement.

What is employee engagement?

What does employee engagement really mean, Damian?
Engagement is a simple concept that’s been made more complex than it needs to be. In fact, one of the main challenges for engagement is that there’s no one true definition. I often explain to clients that engagement should be viewed not as something you ‘do’ to people, but rather the result of how people connect with your business.

Engagement is a state where people do it because they want to, not because they have to.

It’s a relatively simple concept to understand, but hard to do. It requires leaders to start listening in new ways and allow employees the freedom to express views counter to managerial wisdom. It’s about bringing both employee and employer into a collaborative conversation to create a more active involvement in the company culture.

As proud members of the Engage International community the Boost Partnership provides strategy, consultation, and unique learning experience days, for leading brands interested in transforming their culture and increasing their people engagement.


Can you outline the key elements of an effective employee engagement strategy?

Employee engagement strategy

It’s easy to say you need to review your engagement strategy in terms of how well you listen to your people, create meaningful work, have flexible management, provide an attractive work environment, growth opportunities with empathetic leadership.

But that’s been said before, I think it’s more interesting to consider the following.

You have two waiters in a restaurant, same environment, same uniform, same training, same pay, same benefits, yet one is smiling and helpful and the other is curt and rude. Why?

I’ve seen some really excellent employee engagement strategies presented by HR directors, CEOs and engagement specialists explaining what they did to increase their engagement score.

But, if it’s just a score increase you’re after are you really tackling the issue of engaging your people? Is the focus on gaining a result rather than on the people?

Despite the many great strategies and ideas, and according to Gallup’s latest figures, only 18% of the workplace worldwide is engaged. This is a figure that hasn’t moved significantly for the last 20 years. So, the question becomes, why aren’t these strategies solving the problem?

My waiter example previously mentioned demonstrates what I think might be a cause. A company can do everything possible for its people, but still fail to engage everyone. The reason for this might be that the only person trying to fix ‘engagement’ is the employer, not the employee. As the employee is half the relationship the commitment and solution to engagement must be an agreement, both ways.

When helping clients with their engagement strategies we review the entire employee experience from on-boarding to exit interview. The major components that have consistently stood out when increasing engagement, improving culture and performance in a short amount of time is after the following three actions have been placed into engagement strategy.

Firstly, and as a collective, the company must identify its purpose, values and the behaviours it wants. These must be agreed and clear to all before moving to the second stage.

Once in agreement, you need to find a way for everyone to police and protect the values, behaviour and culture. This can be done by creating a culture of zero tolerance for anyone breaking the values in everyday interaction with everyone, internally or externally. Anyone not behaving in the agreed way, including (and especially) senior executive management, must be told.

Finally, only recruit, measure and reward people who demonstrate your values and behaviours, recognize them and praise them both within the organization and publicly.

Management role

How can individual managers work with their teams to enhance employee engagement?
A major factor in engaging your team is to provide recognition. This costs nothing and can be implemented immediately. Studies prove that organizations that give recognition and thank their people outperform those that don’t.

Interestingly, in a study by Deloitte they found recognition peer-to-peer means more than from leaders, mainly because peers know what you’re doing day-to-day, so when they “thank you” for your efforts the impact has more meaning.

Creating stories that are easy and frequent to distribute is also key, in one company they create a moment during a weekly company-wide conference call to recognize someone for their contribution.

Another way a manager can listen to the voice of their team in an effective, collaborative and engaging way is to have a weekly roundup of three. This is when everyone on the team, including the manager, sends each other the top three things they learnt, achieved or are proud of that week. Each point must not be any more than three sentences long. This allows everyone on the team to interact and contribute. As this is shared at close of play on a Friday it also allows people to let everyone know what they are doing at the weekend. Not only does this recognition make the individual feel great it also enables the leadership team to promote the values and behaviours expected from everyone.

Trends in employee engagement

What trends and issues do you see arising in employee engagement?
To answer this I think the future of engagement must be reviewed in the wider context of business today. Productivity is the ultimate driver of growth in the global economy, and global productivity has been stuck for some time. The question concerning business leaders for the last twenty years has been, can engagement really help businesses move the dial.

The more sophisticated organizations have already invested in engaging their workforce, but others are at the start of their journey and some have yet to begin. The worrying part is that if the discussion around engagement is treated as merely lip service (like empowerment before it) then the opportunity to make progress, and change the workplace for the better will be lost.

The reason for the lack of progress has been because the discussion has spent too long on debating what engagement is, who owns it, and believing that a ‘tick box’ exercise of the annual survey is enough.

Engagement operates in a very noisy 21st century workplace, as leaders focus on the economy, globalization, politics, millennials, technology, and the breakdown of traditional ‘management cascade’, and ‘leader led’ communications. Therefore, in order for engagement to stand out in this environment it needs to demonstrate clear, instant and measured results, which is not the nature of, or how culture change or transformation works.

The truth is that to engage people you need a genuinely deep understanding of your customers’, employees’ or partner’s mindsets and motivation. You need to know how to win hearts and minds.

For leaders that means unlearning what they’ve learnt in the workplace. This is a tougher predicament than making a decision of the company’s direction as it involves a personal change.

I believe the future of engagement hinges on three key components: Leaders, individuals and how we communicate with each other. Leaders can no longer ‘tell’ individuals what to do, individuals must want to share in the vision and both must share transparent, open and honest communication.

Therefore, the future of engagement will rely on people wanting to make a difference and willing to apply that difference to small, simple, social, structural, strategic, and sustainable behaviours in their everyday interaction with each other. That way the future of Engagement will happen because of us rather than to us.

Who have been the biggest influences on you, your thinking, and your approach to your work?
The biggest influence in terms of my approach to work has been my personal experiences with people in different roles, different markets, and in different industries.

Have you ever discovered that knowing what you don’t like is actually more helpful to understand want you do want? I’d have to say that working with people I’ve disagreed with, in terms of their style when dealing with others, customers, clients or colleagues have also influenced me. It’s amazing how much you’re influenced by companies and people you endure. If you’re in this space right now, don’t worry, you’re getting a ton of learning you can take with you in your next role.

The flip-side is being influenced and encouraged by meeting people who have a genuine passion and drive to succeed to transform things for the better for everyone, such as James Murphy, founder of Engage International.

Academically the neuroscience of McKenna, Dr Bandler and Breen fascinated me in the late 1990s and set me on a path to learn more about behavioural science. Meanwhile, Tom Peters, Sir Gerry Robinson and Jack Welch straight-talking approach to business influenced me on the importance of being goal- focused and taking responsibility.

To date, the biggest influence, and one I’d wished to have discovered sooner, has been the ability to define my own personal values. These are the foundation in how I make all decisions, both in my professional and personal life. When you use values to make decisions, you make a deliberate choice to focus on what is important to us. If your readers haven’t discovered their values, I’d urge them to.

This is an easy way to do this; First write down your five heroes; now alongside them write down (in one sentence) why they’re a hero to you. What values do all these heroes share? Finally, cross out the heroes name and replaced it with yours. You should now have your five values and how you want others to perceive you.

Employee Engagement expert Damian McAlonan

Damian McAlonan has more than 20 years’ experience in leading advertising, marketing, and sales departments, so he knows a thing or two about employee engagement, as well as communication and motivation.

As Managing Partner with The Boost Partnership, Damian’s driving philosophy in creating effective change is to keep things simple, share with honest communication, and trust people to get on with it.

Damian is one of the founding partners of Engage International, a new employee engagement initiative created by James Murphy. Engage International aims to build a global community to promote employee engagement, collaboration and innovation.

Engage International aims to recognize, inspire and improve company culture and employee engagement. It is set, later this year, to unveil its Engage International Outstanding Companies list, which will honour companies that foster a creative, collaborative corporate culture and are striving to improve employee engagement.

Damian is based in London, U.K., and has held senior managerial and board executive roles at Express Newspapers, United News & Media, WFCA Plc, EMAP and AOL Time Warner. He has a Marketing Diploma from the U.K.’s Chartered Institute of Marketing and Advertising, and a BA in English Literature from Lancaster University, England.

Find out more about Damian on Linkedin, and follow him on Twitter.

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Sheelagh Caygill

Sheelagh Caygill is a journalist, content marketer, and communications specialist. She has worked for newspapers, news organizations and in the corporate and non-profit sector in Canada and the U.K. Based in Toronto, she is freelancing and looking for a permanent position. Contact her via the contact form on this site or Linkedin.

2 comments

  • “The reason for this might be that the only person trying to fix ‘engagement’ is the employer, not the employee. As the employee is half the relationship”

    How true indeed. Employees must be empowered to take charge and help create the environment in which they can feel their best and do their best. An environment that forces everyone to take stock of their life and value system.

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