A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald discusses the ‘behavioural capability framework’ being introduced at RMIT. It is apparently a “dot-point cajolement to be happy at work”. While it stops short of asking employees to “whistle while they work” it does exhort them to “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative”. It’s fair to say that the introduction of this framework has met with some serious resistance. (SMH article can be found here).
Primarily, it appears that academics and staff at the university resent “being told to be passionate, positive and optimistic”. It’s an understandable position in many ways, but it does beg the question, “How do you encourage a happy, positive, engaged workforce without coming across like Captain Pollyanna?”
Employee engagement is not a new concept. In essence, it’s a reinterpretation of what used to be called ‘job satisfaction’. The basis of the idea is that an engaged employee or workforce if beneficial to any organisation on a number of dimensions. The broad findings of the research done to date indicate;

  • Engaged employees are more likely to invest ‘discretionary effort’, they add incremental value to the business over that which is spelt out in their job description
  • Satisfied, happy employees talk about their organisations in a more positive light, improving perceptions of the organisation as a good place to work – an ‘employer of choice’
  • Positive emotions deliver twice the impact on performance of negative emotions
  • Employees who feel ‘engaged’ show lower levels of intention to resign, they show lower rates of voluntary staff turnover

So if the goal is to have positive, engaged employees, how should organisations act to increase levels of employee engagement without risking the kind of negative backlash and ire RMIT has seen?
As is often the case, when it comes to building levels of employee engagement, actions speak louder than words. It’s not enough to talk about it, the senior leadership within the organisation need to be active participants in the process of driving higher levels of engagement.
Before we look at how, let’s look at what the key drivers of employee engagement are. Research conducted in the UK shows the key aspects to be:

  • Feeling encouraged to share thoughts and opinions about the organisation in an ‘upward’ direction
  • Communication is key – people want to be up to speed on what is happening within the organisation
  • Witnessing commitment from senior managers – employees need to be able to believe that their boss is as committed to the organisation as they are being asked to be

Adding to this list are issues like ‘empowerment, consultation, organisational concern for wellbeing’.
The starting point is ensuring senior leadership within the organisation have a clear picture of the mood and attitudes of the employees. Culture surveys, engagement surveys – there is no shortage of tools and advice available on how to gather this information. Whichever you use, the key is to ensure the ‘telemetry’ of the organisation is understood and that the issues and opportunities are identified and quantified on a broad, thematic level.
Once the issues and opportunities for improvement have been identified, plans can be created to address these. If Communication is seen to be an issue, forums/channels for information sharing can be created. If the issue is one of organisation-wide clarity of purpose, activities to ensure employees are aware of the central strategy the organisation is pursuing can be beneficial.
Even better, involving the employees in the process of creating the strategy will ensure higher levels of commitment at the outset, from the very people the organisation will rely on to implement the strategy. If the issue is one of burn-out and a work/life imbalance, programs can be instituted around employee wellbeing.
An engaged employee is one who is able to get into “flow” easily and quickly. Creating positive flow within an organisation is a long-term objective that is worth pursuing, but one where identifying the issues is only the first step. Employees need to be able to easily identify the initiatives being introduced to deal with the issues they themselves have identified as being important but not delivered. As always, Dilbert summarises all of this into a ‘what not to do’ synopsis here.

Actions show you mean business.