Are we asking too much to have our workforce, our colleagues and our team members engaged in their work?

At best, it’s a steep climb, with more than 85 percent of worldwide employees disengaged at work, according to a Gallup study, “State of the Global Workplace.” In the United States, 18 percent of the population considers themselves to be “actively disengaged,” which means they are actively against what the organizations, and their boss, is trying to get done. And 35 percent of U.S. workers polled by Parade magazine said they would forgo a substantial pay raise in exchange for seeing their direct supervisor fired.

If you are serious about reversing the disengagement trend in your organization, here’s a place to start.

1 Idea

Employee engagement generates business results. Multiple studies point in this direction. For example, a Hewitt study found “high-engagement” firms had total shareholder return that was 19 percent higher than average in 2009, while that same metric for “low-engagement” organizations was 44 percent below average (“2011 Employee Engagement Report,” Blessing White). Studies from Gallup found organizations in the “top decile of engagement” outperform their peers by 147 percent in earnings per share and have a 90 percent better growth trend than their competition. (“Gallup’s Workplace Jedi On How To Fix Our Employee Engagement Problem,” Fast Company.)

3 Facts

Lack of engagement isn’t about lack of motivation. People are already motivated, says Susan Fowler, author of Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … and What Does. The difference between an engaged and disengaged person is not a lack of motivation, but the quality of their motivation, according to Fowler. The key to long-term engagement is the day-to-day shift to optimal motivation, when employees’ work is aligned (linked to a significant value), integrated (linked to an important purpose or issue) or inherent (naturally enjoyable, compelling or interesting).

Relational engagement is as important as work engagement. A leader’s investment in work relationships is a critical and unique aspect of engagement. A leader is engaged in multiple relationships at work — with peers, employees, stakeholders and customers. Relational engagement is the degree a leader is energized, enthusiastic and absorbed in working with others. According to early research findings from Jeffrey Yip (Claremont University) and CCL’s Michael Campbell and Shannon Muhly, leaders with a strong belief in the capabilities and motivation of employees to do good work are more relationally engaged and more effective developers of people.

Career development boosts engagement. A 2011 study by Lee, Hecht, Harrison and the Human Capital Institute found that organizations with high employee engagement and high satisfaction with retention rates, demonstrated consistently different talent management practices that those with low engagement. Career development processes were key differentiators. More recently, research from Bersin by Deloitte indicated that companies need to think of engagement in terms of generating passion — and one way to do that is to “take talent mobility and career development seriously.”

5 Tips

Help employees understand their own motivation. People who are happiest and most energized — engaged — are doing work that aligns with what motivates them, according to research from Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton. In their new book, What Motivates Me, they offer a framework and assessment to help you and your team or direct reports understand their blend of motivators — and suggest that managers and employees work together to “sculpt” or fine-tune roles or tasks so they are more aligned with motivations and passion. Greater engagement will follow, they believe.

Care about people. Research from CCL’s Jennifer J. Deal, Sarah Stawiski, and William A. Gentry underscores the importance of the manager for engagement. In a study on employee engagement during the recent recession, they found that retention is bound with managerial support. Employees’ engagement and intention to stay with their current company is dramatically higher for employees who strongly agree that their managers care about their well-being.

Give people more authority, not just more responsibility. CCL’s research on high-potential talent found that high potentials don’t just want more responsibility in developmental assignments. What they say will increase their commitment and engagement is more decision-making authority in developmental assignments.

Develop others. Engagement studies by Gallup over the last 15 years have consistently shown the importance of having a manager who encourages an employee’s development. This is not an HR job or something for your employee to figure out alone. Take time to mentor employees to excel in their current role and guide them to pursue future interests.

Be authentic. Building relationships requires trust, and trust comes when you stop “faking it” or “playing a role.” Organizations that foster authentic behavior are more likely to have engaged, enthusiastic employees. Bring your whole self to your job and participate fully and honestly in the workplace.

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