The dictionary definition of the word engage is to occupy the attention or efforts of a person or persons. In the performance world, the concept of engagement refers to employees' willingness and ability to contribute to the company's success; people's desire to give discretionary effort in their jobs.
The real challenge in achieving engagement is that what engages us today, may not be what engages us in the future. And what engages me may be very different from what engages the person sitting in the cubicle next to me.
What this means is that organizations and leaders have to be very nimble, creative and individualized in how they continually re-engage workers to the work they do.
The individualization component ends up being a very thorny issue. Employment law requires "equal treatment" so most organizations end up following a black and white, by-the-book, written-by-lawyers policy that disallows individualized compensation, reward, recognition, perks or incentives. So what is a leader to do?
Old school managers throw their hands up and stop trying, leaving employees to figure out for themselves how to stay self motivated. Progressive leaders roll up their sleeves and find ways to maintain the spirit of the law, while equally meeting the needs of unique employees.
Does it take more effort? Yes.
Does is require creative thinking and challenging ineffective policy? Yes.
Does it pay off? Well, Gallup estimates that disengaged employees cost US businesses as much as $350 billion a year. So this is not just about employee satisfaction, your choice may come down to employees who make meaningful contribution to the organization or actively sabotage it.
Daniel H. Pink, in his book DRIVE discusses the death of our old notions about motivation and worker satisfaction and challenges us to consider the ways to meet the needs of today's employees while still keeping that labor attorney happy. The best approach to getting the best performance and engagement "emerges when people have autonomy over four T's: their task, their time, their technique, and their team."
According to Pink, autonomy is where it's at. Too many of our workplaces and institutions assume that employees need to be told what to do with laundry lists of job duties and procedure manuals, and supervisors who focus too much on controlling the work of others and too little on providing freedom of choice.
Tune into what natural motivators exist in your employees - do they get excited about solving difficult problems? Do they spend extra time to coach or mentor new employees? Do they put in extra hours when a contest is in place? Once you know their preferred four T's, you can begin to match the level of autonomy you offer with the activities that trigger their intrinsic motivation.
The good news is that engagement can't be bought. Even with limited (or no) budgets and resources to put toward traditional reward systems, you can still keep a highly engaged workforce. The things that drive the greatest loyalty and commitment in your employees cost you no money. Just remember: a one-size-fits-all leadership style fits one.