Podcast: Autonomy – Empowering the Individual to do their Best Work

autonomy to choose the way you work

What impact does autonomy have on engagement? How do we balance autonomy with accountability? What role does trust play in creating autonomy?

In this Engaging People Podcast episode, Christian Nielson, Principal Consultant at DecisionWise, addresses these questions and more in an insightful conversation around autonomy, one of the 5 keys of ENGAGEMENT MAGIC®.

Autonomy is the power to shape your work and environment in ways that allow you to perform at your best. Some people feel stifled in their jobs. In fact, 34 percent of employees say they can’t speak up for fear of negative consequences. Autonomy doesn’t mean “no rules and free reign.” We all work under guidelines. But when we understand our parameters, and have the freedom to do our best work, we are more creative, innovative, passionate and, ultimately, more effective.

Meaning: Your Work Has Purpose Beyond the Work Itself

meaningful work

Meaning is one of the five keys in building employee engagement and it may be the most powerful of the keys. The power in Meaning comes because it is self-determined. Meaning is found when your work has purpose beyond the work itself.

How does meaning specifically relate to employee engagement?

Meaning is one of the most important factors of all the five ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® keys. As we perform driver analyses with organizations, we expect to find all the ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® factors in play – some organizations will emphasize growth, or connection, or impact – but almost, without fail, meaning will always be present as a factor for a driver of engagement in an organization.

Meaning relates to overall engagement in the sense that there are factors that lead you to either disengage or engage in organizations. Most of the factors that lead you to disengage would be things like, “I’m not paid enough” or “I don’t have training” “I don’t have tools to do my work” or “I don’t feel safe in my work environment.” Once those things are all in place, you feel pretty satisfied in your work and you aren’t really looking to leave.
Meaning is one element that brings you to the next level of commitment to the organization. It causes you to be more engaged.

Meaning, is simply defined as “I can find purpose in my work beyond just the job or the task itself.” For example, if I am assembling widgets on a factory floor, the purpose of my work might just be to assemble a widget. When I have meaning, I say “I know the purpose of this widget, and the good that it does in the world.” When that connection is made, then my commitment to my work increases exponentially.

Two Types of Meaning

The first type of meaning is inherent meaning. With this type, an individual may see the direct correlation between the work they are doing and the positive impact that happens in the world as a result their work.

The second type of meaning is associated meaning. With this type, an individual can see how the work they are doing allows them to do other things they find meaningful. A person might think, “because I do this job, I have a schedule that allows me to go to my kid’s soccer game,” or “because I do the work that I do, I have the money to pay for a house.” My work allows me to do all the other things that are meaningful to me outside of work.

Engaged company

How can an organization create a structure where meaning can exist?

Meaning is one of those things that people carry with them into the work place. When you walk through the doors on the first day of work, you have lived a life where you have established certain values and decided that certain things are personally important to you. You don’t check those beliefs at the door on the way in; they stay with you through your job. It’s unlikely that when you go work for an organization that they are going to get you to change your mind on those things that have been important to you your entire life.

However, there are a few things an organization can do to help foster meaning. First, ensure that your employees find the work you are doing important. In the selection process, the question, “Why do you want to work here?” is a really important question. If the answer is, “I want to work here because I live across the street” or “I want to work here because you pay me 25 cents an hour more than the other guy will pay me,” those really aren’t things that are going to be lasting in terms of providing meaning. But if the answer is, “what you do here is incredibly important to me. I want to be a part of that,” then that means the person is going to be walking through the door on the first day of work with a purpose that is pretty aligned to the organization.

The second thing that you can do is highlight the values and beliefs of your organization and help your employees connect the dots to their own values. Help them understand where “the way we do things here, and the things we are trying to accomplish” actually align with the individual’s values.

One of my favorite definitions for meaning is: What is important to me is important to the organization that I work for. Some organizations have official value statements or mission statements but whether or not you’ve taken the time to write your values down on a piece of paper, your organization has them.

You have values regarding the way you think work should be accomplished. You communicate those values through your actions, through decisions, based on how you deal with difficult situations. Those values are immediately visible to employees. Employees will quickly know whether or not the values you are espousing as an organization align with their own personal values.

Values Drive Meaning

Many organizations that drive meaning excel at putting their focus on an external element. For example, one of the key values of a software company I work with is “Do what you need to do to help the customer.” The value of helping the customer is so ingrained in their narrative that they talk about it every day. They are able to raise the eyesight of the entire organization, so they are no longer bickering with co-workers or evaluating fair or unfair treatment or co-worker effort and reward. They are focused on what they do together to help the customer. This common value creates meaning because almost everybody will carry that into their daily work. This value effects the decision making and thought processes of the entire organization.

engaged employees

Finding Greater Meaning in My Job as an Individual

First, focus on the people or the stake holder that you are serving as an organization. Lift your focus from “How do I get what I need out of this job?” to “How do I help other people get what they need?” Ask yourself, “How do I help them get the service that they need that will ultimately lead to an easier or better life?” If you put your focus on that, you tend to forget about your own needs and subordinate to the needs of other people; which can lead to more meaning.

Second, evaluate your own values. When I am talking about values, I’m not just talking about the things that I value. Everybody values, for example, money to some degree. I am talking about the things that are really important to you. See how those values align with the values of your organization and validate compatibility. You may conclude that there is more common ground than you originally thought. On the other hand, if there is little or no common ground and you don’t think what your company is trying to accomplish is important, then there is a chance that you will never be able to engage.

Remember, meaning is one of the most important factors to whether or not you are going to engage. If you can’t find meaning in your work, it is unlikely that you will really engage over the long-term. You might engage for a growth opportunity or for this or that, but over the long-term it’s going to be hard for you to stay motivated. If you find yourself thinking, “what I am doing is completely unimportant to me, it doesn’t fulfill any of my values, it doesn’t fulfill me as a person,” it may be time for you to go find something more personally fulfilling.

A Shared Purpose

Meaning is something that employees can learn and create but is not something that I would say most organizations should focus on. What an organization can control is creating a shared purpose for all employees. By definition, you can’t have a shared purpose if everybody is only looking out for themselves.

Lastly, creating meaning within an organization is a learned competency. Managers can be taught, “Here are the important components of creating meaning and how they can help employees see the meaning in their work.” It’s about understanding the alignment of organizational and employee values.

Listen to the podcast recording on meaning.

Further reading: “Do You See Meaning In Your Job? These Employees Do.”

Consider surveying your employees to see how meaning is impacting overall engagement.

Podcast: Meaning – Your Work Has Purpose Beyond the Work Itself

meaningful work

On this Engaging People Podcast episode, we discuss meaning – your work has purpose beyond the work itself.

Meaning is, simply defined, “I can find purpose in my work beyond just the job or the task itself.” It is one of the most important factors of all the five ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® keys for driving engagement in an organization. But how can organizations create a structure where meaning can exist? How can individuals find greater meaning in their job? How does meaning specifically relate to employee engagement?

David Long, VP of Assessment Services at DecisionWise, addresses these questions and more in an insightful podcast conversion with host Justin Warner.

Webinar: Employee Engagement Best Practices

Presented by: David Long and Justin Warner
Date: March 22, 2018 – 1:00pm EDT

One question to consider as you think about whether to put effort and investment into employee engagement: “Is engagement worth the effort and investment we put into it?” The short answer to this question is “yes,” but depending on the type of organization you are, engagement may be more critical or less critical to your success.

During this webinar we’ll share the best methods for preparing, administering, and rolling out the results from your employee engagement survey based on over 20 years of experience conducting surveys around the world. We’ll also identify the most common mistakes organizations make when conducting an employee engagement survey and how to avoid them.
HRCI and SHRM Credit Approved.

Register Now

If You’re Happy and You Know It

Employee Satisfaction

Employee Satisfaction starts with sleep

In 2017, the Huffington Post reported on a study from the UK of over 8,000 participants, which showed that a good night’s sleep had a greater impact on happiness than a 50% pay increase.[i]  This study illustrates something most of us intuitively know, and that has been researched for decades. Individuals (employees, in our case) must have their basic needs met before they will respond to other factors (big “thumbs-up” here from Abraham Maslow).

The challenge for companies and organizations is understanding the difference between fundamental satisfaction elements (key needs, such as sleep) and trendy employee perks that capture headlines but do little to improve overall employee productivity and satisfaction. As the UK study suggests, if the satisfaction elements are not met (you are not getting something as basic as restful sleep), a pay raise won’t compensate for that loss. The same is true with your job. On-premises dry cleaning and nap pods do not matter if your boss is a jerk, you don’t have a functioning computer, or your leadership team is comprised of three times as many men as women.

Knowing that satisfaction is foundational to a good employee experience, the tendency is for companies to rush out and ask their employees about various satisfaction elements. Yet, a poorly-drafted survey (focused too heavily on the wrong variables) will do more harm than good. Let me explain.

Are Employees Ever Satisfied?

Our DecisionWise database of employee survey responses demonstrates that if you survey a workforce, and ask them about compensation, the organization will always find that employees believe they are underpaid. In fact, our database shows that somewhere between 62% and 68% of employees (depending on the job level) believe that their compensation isn’t reflective of the work they do. Not surprisingly, this isn’t because they believe they are overpaid. Similarly, if you run an employee survey and ask about perks, employees will always ask for more perks.

Thus, companies that ask only about employee satisfaction elements unwittingly create demand where it didn’t exist previously. The survey itself imbues the workforce with the sense they aren’t getting enough. It’s like the old psychological trick, “don’t think about a white bear.” Did it work, or did you think about a white bear when you weren’t before you read that statement? The survey makes a suggestion, whether intended or not, that creates an idea in employees’ head (“I wonder if I’m getting paid enough” or “more perks would be great”) about their level of employee satisfaction. For psychology aficionados, that effect is related to “Ironic process theory,” and it has implications for employee survey design.

More Than Just Employee Satisfaction

So, rather than running a simple employee satisfaction survey (which is more like a suggestion box), our recommendation is to use instead an employee engagement survey or a well-drafted pulse survey. These types of surveys take a more holistic view, measuring satisfaction in addition to other factors. Our experience suggests that by using a broader survey, an employer can alleviate many of the problems associated with a satisfaction-only, suggestive survey. In addition, a wider employee engagement survey has the advantage of providing additional data and insights about the company.

So, if you ask my firm about an “employee satisfaction survey”, you will find that we usually recommend an employee engagement survey for the reasons cited above. We do, however, work with our clients to ensure the following types of questions are included in their employee engagement surveys.

Employee Survey Questions

We have found that these types of questions do a good job of measuring satisfaction elements without creating artificial demand for more pay, paid time off, etc.  Consider the following sample questions:

  • I (the employee) have the tools and resources I need to do my job well.
  • The amount of work I am expected to do is reasonable.
  • The level of stress in my job is manageable.
  • This organization (my company) cares about its employees.
  • My supervisor treats people with fairness and respect.

Notice how these questions measure factors that are more akin to “sleep” (those critical base elements) than questions like, “Do you like granola bars or cookies in the employee pantry?” The latter usually results in employees unanimously saying, “I hadn’t thought about that. Both!”

Also, there are additional cautions to consider. Employee satisfaction should not be measured on a sporadic or haphazard basis. Once you start asking employees to share their experiences with you, a wise organization will continue to do so regularly; at least on an annual basis. Some companies are even using pulse surveys to check-in with their employees more frequently.

Building Employee Engagement

Employee Satisfaction

Unlike employee engagement, employee satisfaction is something that is primarily controlled by the organization. While your employees will help identify gaps, ultimately it is the organization that is responsible for implementing changes when it comes to problem areas within employee satisfaction.

Thus, action planning in the context of employee satisfaction lies primarily with the organization (the top of the organization chart), and you need to be prepared to act or the only thing you will gain from the survey is a lack of trust with your employees. You will soon hear, “See, they asked us, but they don’t really care because they didn’t do anything about it.”

So far, I have only discussed measuring employee satisfaction. The more difficult challenge, however, is how to build and improve satisfaction. Stated differently, how do you motivate your employees to move beyond the basics and truly engage in their work? How do you get them to give their hearts, hands, minds, and spirit to what they do?

The answer to these questions lies in understanding that meaningful employee engagement requires moving beyond employee satisfaction and looking at higher motivating factors, such as creating meaning in one’s work, or giving employees the freedom to decide how their work should be done (autonomy). We refer to these engagement factors as “MAGIC” (Meaning, Autonomy, Growth, Impact, and Connection).

For more information on these issues and creating ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® in your organization, visit our resources page.

[i] Rachel Moss, The Huffington Post UK, September 9, 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/good-nights-sleep-makes-us-happier-than-a-50-pay-rise-research-suggests_uk_59c0c9f7e4b0f22c4a8c2531.

2018 Employee Engagement Driver Benchmark Results

DecisionWise has measured employee engagement drivers for over 20 years. Our research shows that there are 5 keys that drive employee engagement: Meaning, Autonomy, Growth, Impact, and Connection what we call ENGAGEMENT MAGIC®.

The Five Employee Engagement Drivers

  • Meaning: Your work has purpose beyond the job itself.
  • Autonomy: The power to shape your work and environment in ways that allow you to perform at your best
  • Growth: Being stretched and challenged in ways that result in personal and professional progress.
  • Impact: Seeing positive, effective, and worthwhile outcomes and results from your work.
  • Connection: The sense of belonging to something beyond yourself.

We looked at the latest employee engagement survey results for employees in 10 industry categories to find out where employees find the greatest ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® in their jobs.
Meaning: Your work has purpose beyond the work itself.

  1. Technology Employees Feel the Most Meaning in Their Jobs

Employees experience meaning when their work has purpose beyond the job itself. Technology companies lead all industries with 78 percent of employees answering “agree” or “strongly agree” when responding to: “My job provides me with a sense of meaning and purpose.” Surprisingly, Healthcare ranks fourth in Meaning, even though many would say organizations in this category are “directly responsible for saving lives.” Government and Utilities occupy the lowest two spots, at only 60 and 56 percent favorable responses respectively. Our research shows that organizations that operate under strict regulations sometimes make it difficult for employees to feel purpose in their work.

Autonomy: The power to shape your work and environment in ways that allow you to perform at your best.

  1. Professional Services Employees Experience the Most Autonomy

Autonomy gives employees the power to shape their work and environment in ways that allow them to perform at their best. Professional Services, followed closely by Technology industry employees, experience greater degrees of Autonomy than other industries, the study found. Autonomy empowers employees to make decisions about how work is performed, while simultaneously holding them accountable for results. Employees in the Manufacturing and Transportation industries report the lowest degrees of perceived freedom in how they perform their job, due, in part, to less-flexible operating procedures.

Growth: Being stretched and challenged in ways that result in personal and professional progress

  1. Healthcare and Technology Encourage the Most Employee Growth

Growth is different than “getting a promotion” or advancing up the organizational ladders, as many would claim. Rather, it means feeling stretched and challenged in ways that result in personal and professional progress. Employees report feeling the most challenged and stretched in their work in the Healthcare and Technology industries. Both of these industries are in a constant state of change as technology improves and regulations change, requiring employees to learn and grow. Restaurant and Hospitality employees perceive fewer growth opportunities, with only 64 percent of employees responding “agree” or “strongly agree” to: “I feel challenged and stretched in my job in a way that results in personal growth.”

Impact: Seeing positive and worthwhile outcomes and results for your work

  1. Multiple Industries Provide Employees a Sense of Impact

When employees see positive, effective, and worthwhile outcomes and results from their work, they are also more engaged. Three industries tied for highest scores around Impact, including Healthcare, Non-profit, and Transportation sectors. Employees in these industries clearly report seeing they are “making progress on important work projects and initiatives.”

Connection: The sense of belonging to something greater than yourself

  1. Strong Sense of Connection Felt Across Most Industries

Connection is a sense of belonging to something beyond oneself. Employees connect socially to their coworkers and emotionally to the organization’s mission and values. Connection is measured with one simple statement: “I feel like I belong here.” Employees across most industries responded with “agree” or “strongly agree” 75-77 percent of the time. Manufacturing employees reported the least amount of Connection, coming in at a 72 percent favorable rating.

Engagement MAGIC
And the Winner Is…
So, which industry shows the highest level of employee engagement overall? Based on the average score of a validated set of employee engagement anchor questions, we rank-ordered industries from most to least engaged in 2017. Professional Services claimed the top spot, followed closely by Finance, Technology, and Healthcare. Manufacturing showed the smallest percentage of engaged employees at 76.2 percent. The good news?

All industries averaged above 75 percent when it came to employee engagement. This study, the largest in its kind, contradicts reported findings that most employees in most organizations are disengaged in their work and unlikely to be making positive contributions.

About this Study

Each year, DecisionWise conducts employee engagement surveys with hundreds of companies around the world. At the beginning of each calendar year, DecisionWise updates its rolling three-year global benchmark study database (2015-2017) with the results from the previous year. Results are broken out by question and themes into 10 common industry categories. Each question includes results from several hundred organizations across the globe and hundreds of thousands of employees. Industries include:

  1. Technology– Hardware and software manufacturers, developers, and service providers
  2. Manufacturing– General manufacturing
  3. Services– General services such as equipment maintenance, distributors, and support
  4. Healthcare– Hospitals, clinics, pharmaceuticals, testing, and imaging
  5. Finance– Banking, investment, and insurance
  6. Non-Profit– Charitable, membership, and advocacy
  7. Restaurant/Hospitality– Restaurants, hotels, resorts, casinos
  8. Professional Services– Law, engineering, and consulting services
  9. Government– Federal, state, and municipal government agencies
  10. Utility– Power, water, sanitation agencies
  11. Transportation– Airlines, freight, shipping, distribution

The MAGIC concepts are measured using employee engagement surveys to provide an engagement profile for each company. Organization scores vary significantly. For example, a technology consulting firm may score very high on autonomy-related questions, while employees in a government agency who operate within strict policies and procedures experience less autonomy.

For more information on the MAGIC concept, as well as how to create engagement within an organization, details can be found in the award-winning book, MAGIC: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement.

Special thanks to Brittany Vandenbos, DecisionWise Operations Manager, for compiling the 2017 employee engagement survey benchmarks and the background research for this article.

Does Employee Engagement Matter to Organizations with High Turnover?

High Employee Turnover

Recently, we have had several organizations come to us with the same basic question: “What can we do to improve employee engagement if 90% of our employees stay less than 6 months?” It’s important to note that these organizations are not fundamentally flawed and somehow hemorrhaging talent. It’s that their business models lend themselves to high employee turnover. Their industries range from janitorial services, to fast food, to call centers, to agricultural workers, etc. Employee retention equates to millions of dollars a year.

It might be tempting to think that employee engagement simply doesn’t matter in these types of scenarios where employee turnover is high and retention is low. This might be the case if you view employee engagement as primarily a survey activity. Why would you take the time to survey an employee who has been with the organization less than three months, and, in all likelihood, will be gone within the next two?

Employee engagement, however, is much more than a survey. It’s a broader approach that considers a variety of factors and calls upon other business disciplines for assistance, such as strategy, talent management, recruitment, leadership development, and succession planning. So, while it might not make sense to survey all your employees if your workforce is transient, you can still do a lot to help those core employees that manage, direct, and support that segment of your workforce that is constantly coming and going.

Employee Engagement Case Study

Let’s consider a simple case study. ACME Cleaning Services, Inc., employs 2,100 employees in a three-state area. ACME is focused on government buildings and corporate campuses. Most of its workforce consists of part-time janitorial workers that make at or just above minimum wage. These folks don’t have a company-issued computer, and many aren’t even provided a company e-mail address. The average employee tenure is 5.5 months. The vast majority of these positions are filled by students or those needing employment while they continue to look for something that might provide better growth potential. ACME would love to retain its people longer, but its margins are thin, and it can’t afford to pay the labor costs that would be needed to keep people around for a longer period of time. So, ACME does the best it can, and it has become very good at quickly on-boarding and training people.

Nonetheless, ACME is missing many of the benefits it might otherwise realize from an increase in employee engagement. Particularly, it has not focused on that core of key leaders who handle the constant migration of new employees. Thus, the question on the table is whether ACME could improve its bottom line and overall employee experience were it to undertake some efforts to build employee engagement within its workforce?

An Employee Engagement Road map

Here is a suggested roadmap on how ACME might improve its employee engagement efforts across the board:

First, ACME needs to clearly bifurcate its efforts and treat its two distinct employee segments differently. For the segment of employees who are likely to come and go within a year, ACME’s efforts should be life-cycle based. The onboarding process should be simple and easy. Trainings should be standardized, and it might even be a good idea to create a simple knowledge base where employees are able to look up simple questions. Simple-to-use portals would be a key. Finally, termination and exit need to be straightforward and easy to handle. But, surveying these employees, except in an onboarding or exit capacity, probably does not make sense.

MAGIC - DecisionWise
On the other hand, for those employees that ACME needs in order to manage its transient workforce, a strong employee engagement effort will yield real ROI. These core employees need to be empowered with specific skills on how they can inspire, lead, and engage their direct reports. To retain these employees, they need to be given a clear growth path. ACME also needs to understand its employee brand and the value proposition it is giving this employee segment. Additionally, in this instance, surveying this sub-population will show that ACME is willing to listen and address issues that might come up during an employee engagement survey. Lastly, these are the employees that need an ACME employee experience that provides healthy doses of ENGAGEMENT MAGIC®: meaning, autonomy, growth, impact, and connection.

Why Build Employee Engagement?

But, does ACME really need to do all of this?  Its margins are thin anyway. Will a focus on employee engagement really make a difference in employee retention?  The answer is unequivocally yes. Even if the only factor you take into consideration is the cost of replacing employees at the manager level. But, there are benefits that are real (monetarily so), which cannot be readily quantified. We all know that a workforce with the right culture/employee experience is far more formidable than one mired in mediocrity and dissent.

More Than The Survey

Employee engagement is far more than survey analytics, which typically only tell us “what,” “where,” and “when.” Survey analytics are limited because they cannot tell us the “who” and, most importantly, the “how.” That’s where DecisionWise helps companies move beyond the survey to build employee engagement capability and then turn that capability into a true competitive advantage within their marketplace.