Employee engagement has been a popular topic over the past few years. Business articles, blog posts, webinars, ebooks…you name it, all have tackled the topic from many different angles. Frequently, it’s raised in discussing how Human Resources professionals can impact a business’s bottom line. So, of course, there are now software solutions offering to measure it.
But can you really measure something like employee engagement?
The Nutshell Effect
The idea of employee engagement is, like many other useful ideas, the victim of what I’ll crudely call the “nutshell effect.” This is where an innovative, nuanced idea–the product of much critical thought and consideration–is squashed into an easy-to-understand, conveniently vague definition.
The nutshell definition of employee engagement makes it possible to define almost any activity as part of employee engagement. This inevitably leads to the creation of employee engagement programs that are nothing more than a sprawling list of activities, many without a clearly defined purpose. Sure, you can measure all those activities, but do they really make a difference? Do we reach a point where if everything is employee engagement, nothing is employee engagement?
Don’t get me wrong, the nutshell version of employee engagement does have an advantage. Namely, it’s easier to pass the idea around. Imagine if the only way to share an idea like employee engagement was through a 40-page academic paper. Yikes! The vast majority would open it up, scan the headings, and toss it.
The nutshell version is useful because it exposes the idea to more people, faster. The problem arises when the nutshell fails to contain the essence of an idea. Too often, ideas and discussions around employee engagement–and the resulting initiatives–miss the mark by failing to reflect the essence of employee engagement.
The Essence of Employee Engagement
Rather than crack the nut of employee engagement, let’s boil it down to its essence! Then, instead of creating a new initiative with hundreds of planned activities, metrics, and supporting resources, simply ensure that your current activities align with and support the essence of employee engagement. So what is the essence of employee engagement?
Kindness. That’s the essence of employee engagement….let that sink in. Now, if you’re still here and you’re done rolling your eyes, hear me out.
Small Things Matter
Kindness may seem like a “small thing” to the C-suite. I get it. It’s a fluffy idea from a profession that has long been accused of bringing fluffiness to the table. “We can solve our employee turnover and productivity challenges by being kinder to one another,” the Director of HR proclaimed…before being summarily dismissed and forever shamed.
But Emily Dickinson wrote, “Take care of the small things, and the big things will take care of themselves.” You may not agree with this, but it’s hard to deny that there is some wisdom in it. The wisdom comes with understanding why we call some things “small” and some “big”, and how those things impact our work.
It’s small…because it can be overlooked and its impact is minimal. It’s big…because it cannot be overlooked and its impact is significant. That seems straight-forward enough. But what happens if you have the same “small” things to do everyday…or several times a day? Suddenly, the impact of overlooking such things becomes big and can possibly undermine the big things themselves.
The challenge of successful employee engagement is in taking care of the small things, everyday, with kindness. But what exactly is kindness? Kindness is “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped,” according to Aristotle.
So an employer may send out an employee engagement survey, implement a few initiatives, or offer new perks and, through the process, stumble upon an apparent increase in employee engagement. This “increase” will rarely be sustainable, however, because the actions that led to the increase were, by design, intended to increase engagement.
Kindness is a selfless gift, not an investment. So if you’re seeking a true ROI for your canned employee engagement initiatives….you’re not going to like what you see. Meaningful employee engagement cannot be measured, however you can measure the products of effective employee engagement, which happen to be productivity, efficiency, and customer satisfaction–terms that the C-suite cares about.
How to Be Kinder in the Workplace
Kindness as an organizational value must be present in order to effectively engage employees, which will in turn increase important measures of an organization’s health. Sorry, there’s not checklist or secret hack for this.
It’s not good enough to paste this value on a wall or mention it in a 30-page employee handbook. It must be actively practiced and valued among all employees. Most importantly, leaders must model kindness and begin to think, “what’s good for my employees is good for the company,” as opposed to “what’s good for the company could be good for my employees.”
People aren’t numbers. They aren’t machines. They aren’t market forces. People are defined by their thoughts and feelings that occur every day, all day–many of them outside work. And to the degree that an employer can positively impact the thoughts and feelings of its employees by cultivating an environment and culture of kindness, it will succeed in engaging employees. All other ideas–tactics, apps, events, swag, etc.–only succeed if they imbue, project, and come from a place of kindness.