At the center of our efforts to build employee engagement and retain employees is the question of professional growth. Unfortunately, many organizations struggle with this part of the employee experience. Why is that?
Most organizations certainly value and benefit from their employees’ growth and professional development. Of course, employees also value and benefit from various growth experiences. Given that this is such a mutually beneficial activity, you might think organizations would be going out of their way to provide ample opportunities for growth and development, and that employees would have their pick of attractive opportunities. And yet our efforts still often fall short.
At DecisionWise, we find professional growth to be a key driver of employee engagement. To understand why, let’s reframe this discussion by referring to two basic questions:
What is Professional Growth?
Who owns Professional Growth?
Answering these two questions for your organization will provide clarity on how to improve this critical part of the employee experience.
What is Professional Growth?
Most people are comfortable with “professional growth” as a general concept. Rather than define it generally, however, I suggest we reframe the question into two separate questions.
What is professional growth to the organization?
What is professional growth to the employee?
Splitting the question is necessary because how an organization defines professional growth may be completely different than how an employee defines it. I learned this important lesson from my own career.
Early on as a manager, I paid close attention to the growth and development of my team. I tried to challenge them, and I monitored their progress. My goal was to help them to grow, so they could meet the challenges of their demanding jobs. Then, one day, my perspective on professional growth changed during a one-on-one I had with an employee. She told me that since she had been in her position, she felt challenged every day. She felt that she was experiencing a tremendous amount of growth, but she added, “I am growing in ways I don’t want to grow.” In other words, the growth that I needed from her to make my team and the organization better did not align with the direction she wanted to grow. She left the organization for a different opportunity a couple of months later.
Clearly not all professional growth carries equal value in employees’ minds. Organizations need employees to grow to better fulfill their current roles and responsibilities and to prepare them for future roles and responsibilities. Whether an employee finds this type of growth attractive is predicated on whether they find the growth to be an opportunityor an obligation. Thus, whether growth results in engagement depends upon how an employee perceives the growth challenge.
Look Through the Employee Lens
Accordingly, the first step is to look at each individual growth experience through the lens of the employee who is experiencing it. Will the employee look at the experience as attractive or unattractive? Will the experience help them improve in their current role or prepare them for some future role? If they can see no application for the challenge and painful stretching now or in the future, it will be viewed in a negative light.
Paint a Compelling and Connected Picture
Many professional growth plans fall short because they do not paint a compelling picture for the employee’s future. Often, development plans are a series of disjointed and unrelated goals for improvement. They do not connect to organizational initiatives and they do not build toward a realistic future vision of what the employee wants to become. When employees have a vision of what they can grow into, it becomes easier for them to mentally endure the day-to-day grind. It becomes easier for them to see how the challenge and stretching they are presently experiencing will make them better now and in the future. The challenges they are going through on a day-to-day basis may very clearly be making them better now and preparing them in the future, but if they do not make that connection, the challenges will just feel like stress.
Defining professional growth is difficult, because the definition will be different for every employee in the organization. This means that individual employees play a critical role in determining how happy they are with their own growth, which leads us to the next basic question.
Be Clear on Who owns Professional Growth
Part of understanding professional growth is to define who is responsible for it. Is it owned by the organization? Is it owned by each individual employee? Is it owned by managers? If I asked most executive teams who owns professional growth, they would tell me that employees are responsible for their own growth. If I asked employees in most organizations, they would tell me that their professional growth is owned by the organization. Neither party takes ownership of professional growth, and many employees end up leaving the organization to find it. Obviously, the organization cannot completely own the professional growth of its employees, and employees are powerless to own their own growth without resources and opportunity. Managers are also reliant upon resources to be available and upon employees to take initiative.
The employee, the manager, and the organization all have roles to play in bolstering professional growth. Defining the role of each party can clarify where disconnects might be happening. For example, employees might be responsible for understanding and clarifying their long-term direction. They may also work to identify opportunities to pursue, goals to achieve, and the mentors to help them move toward their long-term direction. The role of the manager might be to facilitate regular discussions with employees about their long-term goals and how they are making progress toward them through daily challenges and stretch opportunities. The role of the organization might be to supply the resources and opportunities for managers and employees to leverage in building professional development plans.
Conclusion and Recommendations
By defining professional growth from the employee’s and organization’s perspective and by defining who owns professional growth in your organization, you can begin to develop a plan for how to improve it.
Consider taking the following six actions to help improve perceptions around growth in your organization:
Clearly define the roles of the organization, the employee, and the manager in the professional growth of employees.
Provide organizational resources to allow for people to own their individual growth (i.e., training budgets, mentors, professional development plans).
Ensure managers have a clear understanding of the short and long-term career and growth objectives of their direct reports.
Build professional development plans with the long-term vision of the employee in mind.
Help employees see how the challenges and stretching they are experiencing now will help them in their future careers.
Empower employees to seek tasks and assignments that fit their long-term growth objectives.
In most organizations, employee growth happens organically. Naturally, some employees are happy with the growth they are experiencing. Many others will struggle to find meaningful growth. Being intentional about understanding what professional growth means in your organization and who owns it can be the beginning of building a culture of growth that will benefit many more employees. When employees feel good about the opportunities in front of them, they are more likely to stay and engage in their organizations.
At DecisionWise, we are in the business of driving employee success through experience and feedback. When working with organizations, we focus on their employee experiences, which we define as an organization’s culture understood through the eyes of its employees. Put differently, the employee experience is the way in which employees perceive and are impacted by their work, their supervisors and leaders, and the other various touchpoints they encounter within and around an organization.
When I first started writing and talking about employee success, I tried using a definition that equated the employee experience with what I called “deliberate culture.” This definition, however, proved to be too narrow and a bit over simplistic. Instead, our ongoing research at DecisionWise has led us to discover that there are three, vital interrelated concepts, of which the employee experience is just one component.
These three elements are:
Culture can readily be understood as “the way things are done around a particular place or within a certain group.” Organizations, civic leagues, clubs, families, etc., all have unique cultures. When addressing an organization that has employees, we define culture as those values, norms, guiding beliefs, principles, and common understandings that are shared among members of the organization as the proper way to behave, think, and approach the organization’s work and mission. An organization’s culture is either organic, such that it is created by a myriad of interactions with little shaping by senior leaders. Or, alternatively, culture can be designed and managed – by the organization’s senior leaders – to support and sustain the organization.
2. The Employee Experience
The employee experience is the impact an organization’s culture has on its individual employees. The employee experience is that intersection where an individual bumps into the organization’s culture, either for good or bad. When dealing with an employee’s experience, we are seeking their perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs about what it is like to work at a particular organization or company. Again, the experience tells us how the organization’s shared norms and values are impacting the employee, and when we aggregate the employees’ responses from surveys we send them, we uncover an array of insights that help us know how we might change or strengthen the culture.
3. Employee Engagement
Employee engagement is the positive emotional response employees have to their individual employee experiences. If alignment between the employee experience and the individual’s personality, viewpoints, values, etc., is high, then the individual will bring more of themselves to the organization’s mission and purpose. They will engage in moving the organization forward in a constructive manner. Thus, employee engagement is an outcome; an outcome that is derived from both the organization’s culture and the way the organization’s culture is experienced by its employees.
For years, many of us in this space spoke of an umbrella concept that we called “employee engagement.” The challenge with this approach was that it gave the impression that employee engagement was something you worked on independent of your culture or the corresponding employee experience. What we now better understand is that these three elements do not exist independent from each other, and that the first two elements are drivers of the third element.
For us here at DecisionWise, being precise with our definitions has helped us better deliver value to our clients. We have improved our ability to both measure employee success at various levels and to learn precisely where our efforts have the most impact in growing engagement. I deliberately use the word “grow” in this context. Employee success is not something you build; it is something you grow by carefully cultivating your culture.
How does an organization improve its cultivation efforts? Improvement is found by consistently measuring employee experiences at various points in time and at various stages within the organization. Fundamentally, it’s about taking the time to listen, then seeking to understand, and then acting with genuine intent to improve the culture so that employees can thrive and bring their best selves to work.
Nowadays, we spend much of our time helping our clients understand their cultures by providing them with the data, insights, and recommendations they need to build the right culture for their organization. The reward? Successful business outcomes that are driven by highly engaged employees who are benefitting from rewarding and fulfilling employee experiences.
DecisionWise has been conducting employee surveys with organizations around the world since 1996. During that time, we have studied over 32 million survey responses to understand what manager behaviors have the greatest influence on employee’s engagement in their work. These behaviors are tied to the five keys that drive engagement, namely: Meaning, Autonomy, Growth, Impact, and Connection (MAGIC). The more employees have positive experience with these five keys, the more likely they are to engage in their work.
Without getting too theoretical, we have distilled the most important manager behaviors for each of these keys. Here are some practical employee engagement ideas that you, as a manager, can use to create experiences that will drive engagement and, ultimately, performance.
“It is impossible to have a great life unless it is a meaningful life. And it is very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work.”
— Jim Collins
People experience meaning when their work has purpose beyond the tasks or work itself. Generally, people feel a greater sense of meaning when the organization they work for has goals that align with their own personal value systems. Managers help reinforce meaning within their teams by talking frequently about the mission and goals of their organizations, departments, and teams to help employees clearly see how working toward those goals is personally important to them.
Manager Tips to Improve Meaning
Find out what is meaningful to each of your employees and how they experience meaning at work. Encourage them to work on tasks that are meaningful to them.
Frame goals with a sense of meaning and purpose. Explain the “why”.
Share how the organization’s products or services are meaningful to end users and/or the community.
“Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.”
Another employee engagement idea is to establish a sense of autonomy as a critical factor in creating lasting engagement within your team. Different team members require different levels of autonomy. As a manager, you should work with employees on an individual basis to determine how much autonomy you can appropriately offer based upon individual skill level and drive. Most team members respond favorably to being granted autonomy and trust. Conversely, most individuals respond poorly to continual oversight or micromanagement.
Manager Tips to Improve Autonomy
Decide where you can grant more autonomy and offer it. Is there flexibility about how they do their work, when they do it, where they do it, or with whom they work?
Provide clear direction and boundaries so that employees don’t get overwhelmed trying to figure out what you want.
Celebrate success and don’t punish mistakes.
“The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.”
— Harvey S. Firestone, founder of Firestone Tire & Rubber Company
Employees experience growth by being challenged and stretched in ways that lead to personal and professional progress. Growth is a key factor leading to employee engagement and retention. Managers can help their team members by being attentive to their career and development goals. Having regular discussions to plan and check in on career development can be very helpful and motivating to team members.
Manager Tips to Improve Growth
Make sure each employee has an Individual Development Plan (IDP) and review it at least quarterly.
Talk with your employees about their career aspirations.
Regularly coach your employees.
“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
— Jackie Robinson
People experience a sense of impact when they see the difference their work makes, or when they feel valued for the contribution they make to the organization and its mission. A manager can help team members improve their engagement by showing them how their contributions are integral to the success of the larger team, the organization, and to the organization’s customers, clients, or patients. Taking the time to recognize the efforts and contributions of team members can also help them feel a sense of impact, not to mention a sense of connection and care.
Manager Tips to Improve Impact
Set clear goals and objectives that are challenging with your employees.
Define success and track it.
Regularly Recognize your employees’ contributions.
“Communication—the human connection—is the key to personal and career success.”
— Paul J. Meyer
Of our employee engagement ideas, this is one of the most important. Connection is the sense of belonging a person feels when they are part of an organization or team. Our research data shows that a strong sense of connection is one of the most critical factors in determining the engagement of organizations and individuals. Individuals connect to organizations through social relationships, enjoyable work opportunities and experiences, congruent values, and common purpose.
Manager Tips to Improve Connection
Show that you care about your employees so that they trust you. In the words of Teddy Roosevelt: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”
Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable to your team. Let them get to know you personally.
Provide space and activities so that your team can have fun and get to know one another.
As you have probably noticed, these tips appear to be simple and you may be one of those managers that practices them on a regular basis. But based on our survey research, we find that many teams lack managers that are either good at these employee engagement ideas or do them consistently. When was the last time you had a conversation about your employee’s career aspirations? Or do you recognize your employees on a weekly basis?
As you look at this list, consider which of these keys is most important to your engagement and the engagement of each of your employees. We are all unique, so each key will rank differently in importance. As you conduct one-on-ones with team members, ask them about these keys and find out how they play into their engagement. Better yet, have them take our free Engagement MAGIC® Self-assessment and review the results together.
What is employee engagement? And why are there so many employee engagement definitions? Organizations around the globe are striving to build a culture of engagement, yet the various definitions often cloud their efforts.
Rewards and recognition, learning and development, health and fitness, perks and benefits are all categories that commonly use employee engagement to describe their initiatives.
Defining Employee Engagement
If you search for “employee engagement definition,” you’ll come up with a seemingly unending list of definitions from consultants to multinational corporate conglomerates—and everyone in between. Here’s a selection of some of the best (or most curious) employee engagement definitions we’ve seen:
“Emotional connection an employee feels toward his or her employment organization, which tends to influence his or her behaviors and level of effort in work-related activities.” Business Dictionary
“A business management concept that describes the level of enthusiasm and dedication a worker feels toward his/her job. Engaged employees care about their work and about the performance of the company, and feel that their efforts make a difference.” Investopedia
” Employee engagement is the emotional attachment employees feel towards their place of work, job role, position within the company, colleagues and culture and the effect this attachment has on wellbeing and productivity. ” HR ZONE
“An emergent and working condition as a positive cognitive, emotional, and behavioral state directed toward organizational outcomes.” Michael Shuck and Karen Wallard
Defining Employee Engagement – How Do We Do It?
DecisionWise defines employee engagement as an emotional state where we feel passionate, energetic, and committed toward our work. In turn, we fully invest our best selves–our hearts, spirits, minds, and hands–in the work we do.
When you see engagement, you know it. However, it is often hard to put into words. For example, in 2001 Douglas Conant took over as CEO of Campbell’s Soup and called it a “bad” company. Its products were bleeding market share, and research showed that 62 percent of the company’s managers did not consider themselves actively engaged in their jobs. Yet by 2009, 68 percent of the company’s employees said they were actively engaged, while just 3 percent considered themselves actively disengaged.
How did Conant do it? He made a commitment to his people, embodied in the phrase “Campbell valuing people, people valuing Campbell.” Conant improved the physical surroundings by removing the barbed wire fence around the offices and focused on improving manager communication. Conant also instituted programs to celebrate individual success, from sending them personal thank-you notes to having lunch with employees.
Campbell’s built a culture of employee engagement. It had nothing to do with air-hockey tables in the break rooms or on-site clinics. People engage with people, and they give more when they feel heard, empowered, and appreciated.
How the Psychological Contract Between the Employee and the Company Defines Engagement
The Psychological Contract has the greatest potential influence on employee engagement and as a result, the overall employee experience. Hidden in our hearts are the ideas, hopes, and dreams that truly define us. These expectations cannot be addressed adequately by clauses in an employment contract or hiring slogans that attempt to align expectations. These expectations are part of the psychological contract. The Psychological Contract is the unwritten, implicit set of expectations and obligations that define the terms of exchange in a relationship.
What’s Different Between a Satisfied and an Engaged Employee?
Many leaders mistakenly think that increasing employee satisfaction will increase employee engagement and motivation. Satisfaction is transactional and contractual. In return for their work, you promise to provide employees with the basics: compensations, tools, and resources, physical safety, dignity, and respect. Both the organization and the employee must continue to make constant deposits in the relationship “bank account.”
Satisfied employees will put out as much effort as they are compensated for, and no more. They deliver what is asked of them, as long as you deliver on your part of the deal. They show up and do their work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to say no to other offers.
Changing Our Minds About Engagement
When it comes to the all-important bottom line, employee engagement (not satisfaction or happiness) matters. It’s a powerful engine for growth and profit. When defining employee engagement, it is important to recognize that it is a 50/50 proposition with the responsibility to become engaged on the employee and the responsibility to create an engaging environment on the organization. Employee engagement can be defined as creating a culture where both the organization and the employees become engaged.
With the recent shift of many employees working remotely, connection seems to be universally craved now more than ever before. Connection is, in fact, a basic human need, residing on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs just above physical safety. And yet, research shows that 40% of employees feel isolated at work, leading to lower employee engagement.
Connection in the workplace is the feeling of being part of a community engaged in something bigger than any one person. There’s a sense of belonging to the organization and the people around you. There’s a deep sense not only of social camaraderie but of kinship, shared culture, values, customers, and mission.
When employees feel a deep, strong connection, they are more likely to expend extra energy for one another, to give more to the organization, and to be more positive in the things they say both at work and away from it. Effort, attention to quality and detail, and morale go up . . . and generally, so do profits. Connection can make a team more than the sum of its parts.
Stages of Connection that Drive Employee Engagement
Connection doesn’t happen all at once. It’s rare for a new employee to join an organization and immediately feel they are fully integrated as part of a team. Instead, people typically pass through a few preliminary stages before achieving connection:
Fit. Fit is similarity to, or a congruence with, an employer’s culture or environment. This might manifest as an appreciation for the physical artifacts in the work space, a connection to the social structure, an appreciation for the work environment (digging your cubicle, the break room, etc.), job fit, or a fit with the organization as a whole. People who fit with an organization may find that the people working there have a career or educational background like their own or that the work being done is the kind of work they trained for and enjoy. They fit in with the company.
Belonging. If fit exists, then employees may move on to feel that they belong with the organization. Belonging includes sharing the same values as the company, enjoying work, and experiencing motivation and reward.
Integration. Once employees feel they belong, they become an integral part of the organization. Rather than being just a part of the organization, the organization is a part of who they are.
Case Study: The Ritz Carlton Demonstrates The Results of Full Integration
We can learn a lot about connection and fully integrated employees from The Ritz Carlton and the following experience. John DiJulius was a guest at the Ritz Carlton Sarasota in Florida. While leaving in a rush for the airport, he forgot his laptop charger in his hotel room. DiJulius said, “I planned to call when I got back into my office, but before I could, I received a next-day air package from The Ritz Carlton Sarasota. In it was my charger, with a note saying, ‘Mr. DiJulius, I wanted to make sure we got this to you right away. I am sure you need it, and just in case, I sent you an extra charger for your laptop.’ The note was signed by Larry K. Kinney, in Loss Prevention.”
The Ritz Carlton customer service stories are legendary and for good reason. They demonstrate what it means to have fully integrated employees. Larry Kinney was not just a Ritz Carlton employee; The Ritz Carlton and its “Gold Standards” became a connected part of who he is.
Connection is an essential factor for whether an employee chooses to engage or not. Consider your employees’ experience at your organization. Where might they fall in the stages of connection? How could you foster a greater or more meaningful connection for your employees? Finding answers to these questions will help your employees become fully integrated and connected to the mission of your organization.
We all want to feel that our experience, ideas, and opinions matter. We want to feel valued by our employers, by our supervisors, and by our teams. In other words, we want to feel heard. The level to which employees feel they can voice their input to an organization that listens, understands, and responds, is what we call, the employee voice.
Nearly every employee engagement survey that DecisionWise runs has items designed to measure different aspects of employee voice. “We listen to and value each other’s thoughts and opinions,” is a common item included in our surveys. This item helps us measure team experience, organization values, employee input, feedback, and suggestions.
Another item we frequently use is, “This organization is responsive to ideas and suggestions for improvement.” Employees want to know: Are you listening? Are you responding? Do you value our feedback? Often a company is confident they have an effective employee voice. However, a survey reveals their employees have not seen or felt the organization’s response to their input.
Address the Opportunity at 3 Levels
I recently worked with a large manufacturing client whose employee survey results showed they were struggling with employee voice. The client asked me, “How do we fix this? How do we make sure our employees feel heard?” I recommended addressing the opportunity from three levels:
1. The Executive Level
2. The Team Level
3. The Organizational Support Level
In my experience, considering the challenge through these lenses is an effective way to design a meaningful response.
Fostering the employee voice must start with the executive team. Their opinions and behaviors directly influence the larger culture of the organization. If senior leaders demonstrate that employee input is important, the rest of the leadership structure will notice and follow. Here are some things that I’ve seen executives do to support healthy employee voice:
Increase visibility and organic touchpoints – Look for opportunities to interact organically with employees throughout the organization. Walk the floor. Employees often feel that when an executive is visible, they are accessible and listening.
Share stories of employee voice – Identify and share stories of employee input benefiting the organization. Champion innovations or improvements that have come from frontline employees.
Respond with authenticity – When input from the employees is received, respond promptly and authentically. Even if the answer is “no,” employees value sincere communication and confirmation that they were heard.
If you want to address challenges with employee voice at the team level, managers must be developed appropriately. Train all managers on the importance of listening and how to demonstrate to their teams that they and the organization are listening. Some things a manager can do to improve employee voice:
Conduct frequent 1:1 meetings to discuss growth & development and to listen to employee ideas, questions, and concerns.
Appropriately respond to employee ideas and suggestions to close the feedback loop.
Take action on the team’s employee survey results. Enlist team members to prioritize areas of focus and take meaningful action. Frequently discuss progress.
voice requires organizational alignment and support. Technology, process,
policy, and the physical environment can all help or hinder employee listening.
It is wise to start with a communication channel audit. Explore which channels are currently available for employee communication. How are they working? Are you reaching everyone (including remote employees)? Large organizations need to have a few more options available if they want to frequently hear from all employees.
Do you have an effective employee listening strategy that helps capture frequent input across the employee lifecycle? The best strategies include onboarding/exit surveys and effective pulsing to help capture and organize employee input.
Employee Voice Matters
One of the most important items included in DecisionWise surveys is the simple statement, “I feel like I belong here.” This item frequently emerges as a statistical driver of deeper engagement. However, how do you help someone feel like they belong? It turns out…you listen to them. Employee voice items are highly correlated to this important area of belonging.
Employees are looking for a deeper sense of meaning, impact, and connection in the workplace experience. One of the best ways to support them is by strengthening the employee voice.
Are you ready to ask yourself that critical question now? What experience are you creating as an executive or manager to help your employees feel heard and understood?
Consider the following recommendations when determining your employee survey philosophy:
1. Remember the Purpose
The primary goal of a survey is to make the organization more SUCCESSFUL, not simply to gather data. It should help you understand how to ALIGN the employee experience with the goals of the organization.
While some surveys provide interesting data, they do little to support the organization’s STRATEGY. Your survey process will be successful if it allows the organization to gather and ACT upon information that makes the company more successful.
2. Think of It as a Campaign
A campaign is long-term and has a PURPOSE. It’s not a one time event. Engagement doesn’t start and end with a survey. The survey should be part of a larger PROCESS to address the whole employee experience.
Survey data provides excellent information that can be INTEGRATED with other performance data such as revenue, quality, and customer service.
3. Technology Isn’t the Answer
Technology simply provides data upon which to act. Don’t let the technology drive the process.
Organizations can get caught up in having the latest CAPABILITIES out of a survey software system.
However, survey technology doesn’t change the employee experience. The tried-and-true organization development concepts of “measure, act, and re-measure” are what create the CHANGE — not the technology.
4. Reconsider the DIY Approach
Administering a “do-it-yourself” survey using internal resources may be useful and practical at times, such as asking 10 people what they thought of the company party.
But surveying an organization of 50,000 (or even 50) may be best handled through the EXPERTISE and DEDICATION of an outside firm.
5. Be Prepared to Act
Only survey as often as you are prepared to act. Let this statement be your guide when it comes to FREQUENCY. If your organization doesn’t have the capacity or intent to act on a monthly survey, don’t survey monthly. Choose a different frequency.
Nothing says, “We don’t care” like receiving feedback and not taking ACTION.